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January 22, 2014

Please Don't Network

Those endless coffee chats and get-togethers can be so exhausting. Mary Ann Casati, a founding partner of Circle Financial Group in New York, offers a better, more genuine way to widen your professional circle.

Sharon Kahn

When it comes to networking, many people have it all wrong. So says Mary Ann Casati, a founding partner of Circle Financial Group in New York, who has built a career on the artful nurturing of professional and personal relationships.

“People spend a lot of time networking with, and following up with, a lot of people. From a productivity perspective, it can be deadly,” says Casati, a former partner at Goldman Sachs. Instead, think of networking as 1) building a lifetime of quality relationships, and 2) developing a broad enough perspective and skill set to excel in your career. That gives you a framework for prioritizing your time, including targeting people from whom you can learn and whose advice you trust. “But before they can give you good advice (or vice versa), they need to be able to place you in context — to know how you think and problem solve, your skills and aspirations,” she says. “You have to develop a mutual relationship over time.”

Among her tips:

1. Pick your spots to network.

There are limitless opportunities to schmooze and mingle, but your time and energy are finite. Use your resources wisely, suggests Casati. Attend only those optional meetings and conferences that will do the most to broaden your knowledge base and perspective. When networking one-on-one, don’t propose a face-to-face meeting when, for example, you can get the information you need by studying a video of an exemplary speaker or reading a management article by an executive you admire.

Most of your meetings shouldn't have a specific “ask” or political agenda, but don’t waste anybody's time, either. “Have thoughtful things you want to discuss,” Casati says. As part of relationship building, use the times you connect with contacts to let them know not just what projects you are working on and what your particular career goals are, but how you think, approach problems, and get things done, and who you are as a person.

A good example is two interns Casati worked with on a political risk insurance project as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. Once the internship ended, each intern would call periodically, saying they&rsqquo;d like to get together to update her on a few things. “By grounding the discussion in this little bit of substance, each relationship broadened into a mentoring relationship. I have learned how they view their goals and aspirations, and I’ve been able to be an informal sounding board and supporter as their careers have progressed. Through their proactivity and thoughtfulness, they each created this relationship,” says Casati.

2. Don’t expect payback.

“Relationships should be substantive, natural, and authentic,” she says. “They should be about enriching your life rather than expecting that someone will pull a string for you,” she says. One never stops building relationships — it’s a process that lasts a lifetime, and some of the most meaningful relationships are built gradually, over long periods, through intermittent interaction. It’s impossible to predict what kind of advice you are going to need or seek over the years, so focus on quality of relationships, not merely the number of business cards you’ve collected.

3. Cultivate five circles.

“To be more efficient with your time, think of your networking strategically, and prioritize” says Casati. By being aware of different types of networks, you can assess which ones are strong at the moment and which others are important to focus on.

The first network is the one with which you’re most familiar: friends and family. These are the people who are important to you inside and outside of work, who come to you for advice, and with whom you share life experiences. They can also be an important source of informal, discreet professional advice.

Second is the network within your organization, but think broadly here. Go beyond peers, and the people to whom you report and the people who report to you. Dive down into and across various silos of the company and get to know people outside your particular area. This enables you to have a broader understanding of the organization as well as a network of people who can help get things done throughout the organization, particularly outside your area of expertise.

Some companies go out of their way to encourage networks, which Casati finds incredibly helpful. She uses the example of Goldman Sachs, where she built a twenty-year career and became partner. The culture there encouraged “teamwork and the willingness to help all employees service clients well, even if an employee didn’t know you personally.”

Third, reach out and develop knowledge about your industry so that you have a broader perspective on what’s happening beyond your own company. Given the pace of technological innovation and changing business models, it is also important to have a lens into other industries that are impacting, or could impact, directly or indirectly, the industry in which you work. For example, Casati is on the board of directors of Williams Sonoma, and was previously on the board of J Crew, so she has strived to develop knowledge and insights into technology, media, and logistics — fields that are redefining how retail is done. To be effective in her board position, “I need to understand significant developments, current and prospective, and gain insights from many different perspectives. Networking within and outside the industry is important,” she says.

A fourth type of network is people you want to emulate: in their leadership or public speaking styles, or ways of thinking about problems, for example. Get to know people who are highly effective but whose skills or approach might differ from your own. “You want to learn from the best, so even if they have an approach you might not feel comfortable imitating directly, you never want to shy away from people who can push you into zones you need to develop if you want to continue to advance professionally and personally,” says Casati.

For example, she says Goldman Sachs encouraged a vast diversity of individual styles, although the company expected employees to share and act within a culture of common values such as “client-first, integrity, trust, and respect.” “Working with many different types of leaders, I learned so much more than if I worked with only one style. In addition, when determining whether or not to go to work for Goldman Sachs, seeing the diversity of their leadership styles gave me confidence that I would not have to adopt any one style but could learn from many people and develop a style of my own that also could be successful within their culture.”

The final circle is people with whom you share a common interest or passion, be it for bird-watching or reversing climate change. “It’s a wonderful network of natural relationships that can branch and blossom into many different areas you might not expect,” she says. (In other words, your next job lead might come from the person you sit next to in church.)

“Think of relationship building as something that happens naturally, over a lifetime,” says Casati. “If you can be strategic, and think of the various needs and interests in your life now and over time, you can prioritize, build your knowledge base, and broaden your perspective while making those relationships stronger, bigger, and better. Having people whom you know and trust can help you build a more meaningful career and, frankly, a more meaningful life.”

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