Opinion Piece: On Networking

“It’s all about who you know.”

A lot is said about the worth of networking, but not much is said about exactly what networking is and how we should approach it. Additionally, advice on networking can often miss the mark because approaches to networking should be tailored to the individual. What works for me might not necessarily work for someone else. I’ve heard many different perspectives on networking over the last several years, and, honestly, I haven’t taken much away from the advice I’ve received. But there’s a particular reason for this, and it’s not because I haven’t been listening.

The Problem & Solution

Networking can be an extremely tricky skill for many veterans to cultivate. Why? The answer is a simple one – it’s completely counterintuitive to us. The problem is that veterans grow accustomed to institutional barriers that strongly disincentivize what might be considered “best practices” for networking in the civilian world.

Seeking personal or friendly professional connections doesn’t always mesh well with military culture since our lives and business dealings are dominated by clear lines. From the very beginning, you’re told exactly who you work with, how you will work with them, who you’re allowed to talk to, and how you must talk to them. Any person that falls outside of your direct chain of command should be avoided, particularly for junior enlisted folks. Furthermore, the goal of networking is usually future-oriented, and, in the military, having a vested interest in your future is often misconstrued as not caring about your present platoon, unit, or mission. In combination, all of this leaves service members without a working knowledge of what networking is or how they can do it successfully.

Let’s conceptualize this point by considering a hypothetical. You’re a twenty-two-year-old Corporal sitting in the waiting room at the Camp Lejeune Dental Clinic when a 3-star General walks in and sits across from you. What’s your plan? The vast majority of us would say something like this – my plan is to avert my gaze, hold my breath, and pray that he doesn’t ask me what unit I’m with; all of this after offering the proper greeting of the day, of course!

Our collective aversion to speaking substantively or freely with the General doesn’t stem from a personal problem. In fact, most veterans have learned to speak confidently with individuals who “outrank” them literally or figuratively. We often say of our higher-ups “he puts his pants on one leg at a time just like I do.” This ability to approach and converse with well-established professionals is one of the first ingredients veterans need to mix into their networking approach.

As I mentioned previously, I think the problem we face is the internalization of rigid institutional norms, and the solution to this problem is to recognize how we’ve been shaped by the military’s standards of professionalism. Ask yourself, “Which habits should I keep? Which habits must I shed?” The answers to these questions will be different for everyone, but there are two common themes.

First, we should relieve ourselves of the mental block that keeps us from approaching new people in the first place. Our hypothetical Dental protagonist has good reason to believe that minding his own business is the most rational move, but our communal responsibility is to ensure that this same individual feels confident approaching anybody, regardless of their station in life, by the time he’s a 23-year-old freshman in college. Next, we should retain and leverage our unique communication abilities. Perhaps you were an Infantry Squad Leader accustomed to shouting fire commands over gunfire; maybe you were an Aviation Section Head responsible for regularly briefing field grade officers. In both cases, and many more I won’t list here, veterans are well-versed in the art of communication. This is one of the most valuable skills many of us leave the military with.

Unlearning our rigid understanding of professional networks is the first step we can take towards developing a networking style that’s effective in the civilian world. This solution is straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Reworking your approach towards interpersonal communication is a process that might take months or years. Be patient with yourself.

The Way Forward

Now that we’ve identified the barriers that keep us from networking to our highest potential and embraced a solution for lifting these fetters, it’s time to develop a strategy for building our networks. I believe that my approach can be helpful to veterans and non-veterans alike.

One of my personal issues with networking is that it often feels exploitative. I feel cheap and hollow approaching someone if I’m doing so with the express purpose of getting something out of the interaction for myself. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t feel this way, but this is just who I am. Instead of “changing my perspective,” I’ve found a way to network that aligns with my values.

I believe that good networking is a 24-hour job and it’s controlled by a concept we all know very well – The Golden Rule. In your daily activities, treat others how you want to be treated; be a good person; be kind to everyone you meet. The best networks, both personal and professional, are built by treating everyone we meet with the assumption that we’ll run into them again some time down the road. Strive to build connections with people that aren’t dependent on an individual’s station in life, career field, or specific personal background. More plainly, focus less on what someone can offer you and more on who they are as a person.

So, here’s my recommended action plan for transitioning service members and young professionals. Introduce yourself to as many people as you can. Remember their names! Ask new people about themselves and show that you’re interested in what they have to say. Next time you see them, follow up on something you spoke about last time. Finally, be kind and approachable. That’s it!

If you make this a habit, you’ll have grown a diverse and highly functional network before realizing what you’ve done. You’ll also have made new friends and created an excellent reputation for yourself along the way.