What People with Massive Networks Know About Creating Connections

It may seem like some people are just born networkers. They connect with others easily, know how to work a room, and always seem to know just who to put you in touch with when you need help with something. And while it’s true that networking comes naturally to certain people, it’s also true that it’s a skill you can learn. WeWork Labs asked a handful of extremely well-connected people to share their secrets.

Be open to every introduction that comes your way

At some point during your professional life, you’ll be introduced to or approached by someone you don’t see an obvious reason to network with. But well-connected people know that you should never turn down a chance to get to know someone new. “The most critical advice that I learned from my father about networking is that you never know who you’ll meet who can be helpful with achieving your business goals,” says Kathryn Burns, managing partner at Sea Pine Partners and senior advisor at Belmond. “Every conversation is meaningful because if you’re thoughtful and assertive, it’s likely to lead to another networking opportunity. Never make assumptions that the people you meet aren’t going to be relevant.”

Don’t be so focused on what you think you need to get from new contacts that you discount people you meet in less strategic ways. “People get stuck on this construct of what they think networking should be—that you need to go in with an ask and know exactly what you need from every person,” says Astrid Soto, chief investment officer at Agro Imports U.S. “But some of the best people that I work with today have been people that I met randomly at networking events. And there were times when I thought, ugh, this person keeps wanting to get coffee and I don’t know why I keep talking to them. Over time they’ve become the most instrumental people in my life because the reason for the connection becomes obvious.

Always lead with what you can give instead of what you can get

The most critical thing that the super-connected know is that being a giver gets you a lot farther than being a taker. “You can’t expect people to help you if you don't lead by example,” says Nicole Oge, global head of marketing for WeWork Labs. “There’ve been so many instances where someone I helped was then tremendously valuable to me later on. And people are far more likely to support you when you’re supportive of them. I respond to everyone who reaches out to me and I try to actively help anybody who asks me for help. I genuinely believe the reason people have supported me in my career and have felt comfortable making introductions on my behalf is because they know if and when the time comes, I will reciprocate.”

If you’re worried that you don’t have something valuable to offer that important person you’re trying to build a connection with, don’t stress. “All of us have a depth of understanding about what we’re doing that the person you’re with doesn’t have but may appreciate,” says Michael Greeley, cofounder and general partner at Flare Capital Partners. “Try to share some nugget of insight that the person across the table from you would value, and then they’ll value you more highly.”

Karma points aside, leading with what you have to offer someone can also make you stand out from the crowd. Potentially valuable connections are likely inundated with requests from people all day long, asking for their help. “So if you don’t come at them the same way everyone else does, asking for help, and instead you ask them what they’re working on and how you could help, it changes the dynamic of the relationship,” Soto says. Not only are you offering something instead of joining the line of people asking for something, but “they become more like a peer than someone you’re trying to get in good with,” Soto says.

Offering your help doesn’t have to be a big commitment. It can be as simple as connecting them with someone who could help them solve a problem they’re dealing with, or someone you think they’d just find interesting. “Networking is like a puzzle,” says Heather Leonard, head of platform for WeWork Labs. “It’s about who I think would work well together and connecting those people.”

“Networking” doesn’t have to mean industry events and name tags

Networking events can be very valuable, but expert networkers know that the best bonds are often formed far away from passed apps and icebreakers. “I’ve learned that the strongest relationships are formed in the most unique ways,” Soto says. “I'll invite someone to come to a meditation class or suggest a walking meeting in the park. A memorable experience can help you establish and forge a relationship much more quickly than following that natural ‘networking’ process people think that you need to follow.”

Less formal environments can take many forms. “I try to have breakfast with somebody I don’t know every day,” Greeley says. “If you meet people early in the day, they’re fresh, they’re not distracted. You get to know them in a different, more personal way than having them come to your office at 1 p.m., which can feel formal, like a job interview.”

Focus your energy on environments and groups that you actually look forward to being in. “Networking doesn’t have to be painful. It can actually be fun,” Oge says. “Anything and everything constitutes networking if you’re surrounded by like minded people you can learn from, and your likelihood of staying connected is only enhanced by your desire to do so. Hone in on two or three groups or organizations that you feel a really strong connection with, where you can add value and you enjoy participating. You want to be viewed as an authority or expert in the group because it increases the likelihood that people will support you if and when you need help.”

Small, consistent gestures matter

If opportunities to help your network in a major way come up, always raise your hand. But don’t underestimate how important everyday, spur of the moment outreach can be. “If an article reminds you of someone, don’t tell yourself that you’ll send it later because you’ll forget. Send it now with a note about why you’re sending it,” Soto says. “Those are the little things that make it exponentially more likely that someone becomes hugely valuable to you 10 years from now.”

Acknowledging important milestones outside of work is wise, too. “You need a human connection, like remembering anniversaries and birthdays,” Oge says. “Reinforcing the personal connection conveys a more genuine approach, and it’s something that I’ve found really helpful.”

Your core connections are where the real value lies

You’ll always want to meet more people who could be useful for you professionally, but stellar networkers know that the real value lies in your core group of connections. “You have master users in your network,” Soto says. “I have probably five people in my network that I go to more than anyone else. And who those five people are is strategic--they’re the people I know will know other people I need to connect with, and the people whose brains I know I can always pick.”

Whether you visualize your network as a web, concentric circles, or whatever visual appeals to you, it all starts with the people in the middle. And you need strong, consistent relationships with them if you want to be able their connections. “You have to nurture your existing network,” Oge says. “The relationship that you might be seeking is often one or two degrees away from your existing network—not a faceless, nameless person that you have no relationship with. That’s proven to be true for me 99.9 percent of the time. Spend 80 percent of your time on your core contacts and 20 percent on stretch or reach contacts.”

You could consider this core group of people your shadow advisory board, a group that Greeley recommends everyone create. “You don’t need to be heavy handed about it or even document it, but you should surround yourself with people who are credible in your field and are more than just window dressing,” he says. “They’re people you can learn from. All of us should have people who are helpful and thoughtful within reach.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of networking with your peers

We often make the mistake of assuming that the goal of networking is to connect with people at a higher professional level than us. But the most valuable connections are often your peers. “When I was just starting out after business school, I was trying to connect with junior investors at other firms, not senior executives who had no time for an associate,” Greeley says. “We could commiserate because we were all going through the same career phase together. The power of that group is that you ‘grow up’ with them. Now, I’m running a firm and I know most of the partners at all of the other relevant firms. We all started off in the same place, and that’s been quite gratifying to see.”

Learn more about networking.