How Human Networking Works

By: Keith Ferrazzi
A group of business colleagues having a conversation while standing.
It is important to socialize, it keeps the brain sharp. Morsa Images / Getty Images

At HowStuffWorks, you can find many different articles on computer "networking." But last I knew, no computer or technology ever got any of us a raise, landed us that dream job, found us that mentor who cared deeply about us and our careers or put that special joy in our lives that can only come from relationships with others.

All these great things are made possible by a completely different type of networking: human networking. ­And not the kind that has given "networking" a bad name -- that superficial, insincere, manipulative stuff that we all can smell a mile away. No, I'm talking about the true art of networking, based upon respectful and caring relationships that promote mutual success.


I have written a book called "Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time." In this article, I would like to share with you some of the most important elements of human networking. I believe they can really make a difference in your life.  See the next page to learn more.

Networking and Relationships

Let me start with one of the most fundamental aspects of human relationships: For each and every thing you want to achieve in life -- whether it's landing a job, earning a raise or promotion or finding that lifelong romance -- there will be at least one person on the other end deciding whether to give you or help you get what you want. Everything we do can only be accomplished through and with other people. Simply put, success, of any kind, requires relationships. Just think of the words of Margaret Wheatley: "Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone."

If this is the way the universe works, you can see why human relationships and human networks are so important.


The most common mistake people make when building relationships for their career success is treating business contacts differently than personal friends. Just think for a moment about the people you work with on a professional level who are also close, personal friends. Aren't they always more forgiving when you slip up and more helpful when you're in need? Of course! I guarantee your work will become easier and more joyful if you make more of your business relationships personal.

How to do it? The same way you make genuine friends. Build trust through intimacy; show them that besides being professional, you're also human. Skip the small talk and go deep into what really matters -- your dreams or fears, your children or the business issues that keep you up at night. And don't think for a moment that they'll think less of you. In fact, usually the opposite happens.

When I tell people about my humble beginnings -- I grew up a country boy in rural, southwestern Pennsylvania, the son of an oft-unemployed steelworker and a cleaning lady -- and how it took me so long to overcome my insecurities of being poor and being picked on by kids from more well-to-do families, people don't think less of me. They immediately empathize and feel more endeared to me than ever before. All you have to do is let your guard down and show enough vulnerability to make others comfortable with opening up to you.

Also, don't stop with treating business friends like you treat personal friends. Mix them, too. Invite business contacts to your home and introduce them to your family. Invite a client out to dinner along with an old pal from school and your significant other or a date. Don't compartmentalize your personal, professional and community lives. Blur the boundaries! You'll have more fun and do more for all three parts of your life in less time.


Your Networking Plan

The more specific you are about what you want to do, the easier it becomes to develop a strategy to accomplish it. Part of that strategy, of course, will be establishing relationships with the people in your universe who can help you get where you're going. So, first, do some deep introspection to find your Blue Flame, the thing in life that really lights your fire. Write, pray, whatever you need to do to clear your head and figure this stuff out. I enjoy great results from Vipassana meditation.

Once you've found your Blue Flame, it's time to have a RAP, or a Relationship Action Plan. Here's a simple way to get started. Write down your goals and the names and types of people who can help you achieve them. Then, note how you can reach those people and how you can contribute to their success, also. The more specific a plan you have and the more you put your goals out to others, the more everyone will conspire to help you achieve your dreams. On the other hand, if you don't know what you want or you don't tell anyone, no one can help you. They can't read your mind.


I can't tell you how many times a friend has called me and said, "Keith, I just became unemployed. I need to start networking; will you teach me how?" My answer: "No. No. No. You need to start job-hunting! You should have been building relationships for the past five or 10 years, so now that you need a job, you could make 20 calls and have five job offers waiting for you in a week."

The lesson: Start building those relationships today!


Networking and Generosity

When I give talks to college and graduate students, they always ask me, "What are the secrets to success? What are the unspoken rules for making it big?" Preferably, they'd like my response wrapped up in a tight package and tied with a neat little bow. Why not? I wanted the same thing at their age.

"So you want the inside scoop," I respond. "Fair enough. I'll sum up the key to success in one word: Generosity." The kids are shocked because they think I'm going to give them "networking" advice. And when they think of "networking," they think of a guy holding a martini with one hand and scattering business cards with the other. He's hell-bent on doing anything it takes to "get to the top," including climbing on the backs of others.


The era of that Networking Jerk is over. I learned that the hard way. Once, a mentor of mine said to me, "Stop driving yourself -- and everyone else -- crazy thinking about how to make yourself successful. Start thinking about how you're going to make everyone around you successful."

Please, learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of many others. Don't be a networking jerk. Remember that the #1 key to success is generosity. Give your talents, give your contacts and give your hard work to make others successful without ever keeping score.

While I would say that your relationships are the most critical piece of your personal brand, before you can develop those relationships you've got to know something and have something to say. Just having a brain and an MBA won't get you anywhere anymore. If you want to become more valuable in the marketplace or more intriguing to the world at large, you must develop some deep expertise in your mind and root some higher-order passion in your heart.

Think of the world's real movers and shakers; they are such because they are about something. Richard Branson -- executing the remarkable. The late Princess Diana -- helping the unfortunate. They are and were interesting. You can be, too.


Maintaining Your Networks

Photo courtesy NOAA

Never eat alone: This rule is obviously one no one can follow 100 percent. It's just a great way to remember to share your passions -- to invite others into the activities you are already enjoy doing. I really love sharing delicious food, good wine and great company. I also bring friends to workouts or to church. You might have similar passions, or you might enjoy doing community service, gardening or watching movies.

If you'll just remember to share your passions, building and deepening relationships will take no extra time than you already devote to your favorite activities, and people will see you in your best light (instead of in those nasty fluorescents of your office space).


Just as people lose weight more effectively if they have a workout partner, your ongoing efforts to build relationships will be more successful if you team up. You and your buddy can provide each other support, guidance and motivation. And you'll always be prepared to try one of my favorite tactics -- trading networks. Throw a dinner party together, and you'll each be responsible for only half the guest list, half the cost and half the effort. But you'll expand your circle of friends to twice the size, and I guarantee it will be twice the fun!

Being Bold in Networking

If you don't ask, you won't get. I learned this from my father. He simply could not be embarrassed when it came to fulfilling his family's needs. I remember when I was a young boy, Dad and I were driving down the road to our home when he spotted a broken Big Wheel tricycle in someone's trash. He stopped the car, picked it up and knocked on the door of the home where the discarded toy lay waiting to be picked up.

"I spotted this Big Wheel in your trash," he told woman who answered the door. "Do you mind if I take it? I think I can fix it. It would make me feel wonderful to give my son something like this."


What guts! Can you imagine such a proud, working-class guy approaching that woman and, essentially, admitting he was so poor that he'd like to have her garbage? Oh, but that's not the half of it. Imagine how that woman felt, having been given an opportunity to give such a gift to another person. It surely made her day.

"Of course," she gushed, explaining that her children were grown and that years had passed since the toy had been used. "You're welcome to the bicycle I have, too. It's nice enough that I just couldn't throw it away..."

So we drove on. I had a "new" Big Wheel to ride and a bike to grow into. She had a smile and a fluttering heart that only benevolence breeds. And Dad had taught me that there is genius, even kindness, in being bold.

Every time I start to set limits to what I can and can't do, or fear starts to creep into my thinking, I remember that Big Wheel tricycle. I remind myself how people with a low tolerance for risk, whose behavior is guided by fear, have a low propensity for success. The memories of those days have stuck with me. My father taught me that the worst anyone can say is "no." If they choose not to give their time or their help, it's their loss. My father understood something that many people don't: To be successful, you have to not only accept generosity when it's offered, but sometimes, you must also go out and ask for it.

There are times when I can make a big difference in another person's life. I can open a door or place a call or set up an internship -- one of those simple acts by which destinies are altered. But too often the offer is refused. The recipient will say, "Sorry, but I can't accept the favor because I'm not sure I'll ever be able to repay you," or, "I'd rather not be obligated to anyone, so I'll have to pass." Sometimes, they'll insist right then and there that they return the favor somehow. To me, nothing is as frustrating as encountering such blindness to the reciprocal nature of generosity.

In this article, I offer you what I know about how human "networking," nay, connecting works. I hope you will apply what you've learned to build stronger relationships in your life -- and know that I'll be thrilled to have made a small contribution to your success. After all, you can't get there alone. We're all in this together.

For more information on human "networking" and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


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