Don’t call it networking

Jimmy Fallon dropped out of college one semester short of a Computer Science degree. 1

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, he is one of the most recognizable faces in the entertainment industry. As the youngest-ever host of The Tonight Show, he has joked his way into popular culture, and he appears to have a long road ahead of him.

We often see people in the spotlight, but we rarely know the story behind their ascent. It’s easy to forget that many of them, at some point, weren’t living lives too different from our own.

At 21, Fallon had an obsession with Saturday Night Live. By his own account, the entire focus of his early adult years was to land a spot on the show. He made compromises in every other aspect of his life for his career, and he was ready to do more of what it took.

Two years later, after a period of trial and error, Fallon did manage to get hired on. He caught the attention of a young agent with connections in the industry, and that got him two auditions. The first one, he failed miserably. The second, he absolutely nailed.

Less than a decade later, Lorne Michaels – the producer of SNL – put him on the Late Night. Four years after that, Michaels installed him as the host of the coveted The Tonight Show.

When asked about his success, Fallon claims that there was little strategizing on his part. He says that he simply put himself out there and kept moving. Others have explained his rapid rise to his ability to connect with the right people and in the right way.

Regardless of whether or not Fallon knew how to formally network, the result was largely determined by the role that certain key people played in his career. 2

Networking is beyond a buzzword. It almost carries a negative connotation. Formalizing human connection often has the opposite effect than the one intended. A better way to receive is by first giving. For a more effective way to get the results you want, focus on:

• Identifying stakeholders of influence

• Building trust with meaningful interactions

• Seeking to present more value than you get

Almost any outcome is a result of a decision made by someone. You can nudge it.

Identify Stakeholders of Influence

Beyond concerns of habits and behavior, much of goal attainment comes down to our ability to convince somebody else to make a decision in our favor. This especially applies to careers.

Whether or not you get a promotion or a new piece of business depends on your performance, yes, but your performance isn’t directly what solidifies the outcome. The combined perception of a group of people does. These are what we’ll call the stakeholders of influence.

One can argue that by simply performing well, there isn’t need to cater to other people. That can apply to some situations, but for the most part, actively organizing your mind to break down who’s important and what they’re looking for is a part of optimizing performance.

There are also times where performance isn’t always recognized for what it is. Identifying stakeholders is a neat trick to ensure that people of influence feel the effects of the work you put in; that each individual or group has something concrete to base a decision off of.

Jimmy Fallon appears to have had two major stakeholders of influence in his career.

The first was Randi Siegel, the young agent that got him his two SNL auditions.

Fallon had done his homework. He used an old boss to reach out to her with some of his work. Impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm, she agreed to take him on as a client. Without her guidance, it’s quite likely that he would never have landed those auditions.

The second was Lorne Michaels, the producer. He’s known in the industry as a hugely influential but intimidating man. As the story goes, after recording every show, Fallon would approach Michaels and simply thank him for the opportunity. He did this every time, until one day, Michaels decided to invite him out for drinks. It changed the direction of his career.

These relationships may or may not have been deliberate, and there’s a possibility that he was good enough to be successful elsewhere, too. That’s not really the point. It’s just about showing the disproportionate effect that the right stakeholders of influence can have.

In any situation, there are a select few players that significantly affect decisions. If you’re a Project Manager, your boss would be the obvious one, but the opinion of your core client and your HR Manager also indirectly influence whether or not you get a promotion.

If you can divide the result you want between streams of stakeholders that can get you there, you can better personalize your performance and relationships to affect an outcome.

Build Trust With Meaningful Interactions

The way that most people traditionally network is by reaching out to someone and then, in one way or another, they try to get something from them. Some people are more obvious in their intentions than others, but most see influencers as their ticket in, and they act accordingly.

The assessment isn’t necessarily wrong. If you’ve picked an appropriate stakeholder, they likely are your ticket in. But that doesn’t mean that they have any reason to get you in.

By approaching someone with the mindset that you’re going to get something from them, whether you mean to or not, you immediately dehumanize the interaction. It’s something most people intuitively pick up on, and it can have the opposite effect of the one intended.

John Gottman has spent the majority of his nearly 40-year long career researching marriages and relationships. The research has become internationally renowned for its ability to accurately predict the long-term success or failure of intimate relationships.

In one of his more recent books, The Science of Trust, he rejects the notion that trust is just blind belief. He likes to define it as an action, and he thinks that our perception of it takes shape based on how somebody behaves towards us. It’s a bond fostered when someone makes an active choice to care for us in some way. Sometimes, even at their own expense.

Now, a marriage or an intimate relationship is an entirely different playground than the association that most of us have with the various stakeholders of influence in our life. The framework for thinking about trust, however, is entirely applicable.

If we approach an interaction by trying to meaningfully understand the people around us instead of finding a way to make it about what we want, we actually get closer to our own objectives.

By showing interest in the motivations and expectations of someone else, we not only build trust, but we learn to uncover what they may want from us to push them to sway any decision of importance in our favor. That’s how we break past the invisible shield people hold up. The more we understand someone, the more we can influence them.

To really shape an outcome, focus on learning about what makes someone tick, and from there, you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly what they want. That’s your opportunity.

Seek to Present More Value Than You Get

Identifying critical stakeholders and authentically connecting with them is one thing, but the last step of the process is the most important, and it’s one that very few do. Take a moment and put yourself in a situation where you might be someone of influence.

You’re constantly approached by the same type of person, and after a while of going through a roundabout conversation that doesn’t provide any value to you, you come across someone who seems to not only be interested in just listening, but also finds a way to benefit you.

Say that in a follow-up email, instead of asking for something, they remember a problem you mentioned you were having and they send you a drafted solution.

Regardless of whether that solution changes your life, how much more likely are you to want to help this person than someone who expected support without providing anything in return?

The most effective way to show competency is to clearly figure out what someone expects or is having trouble with and either exceed that expectation or provide a solution to their problem.

Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton, one of the top business schools in the world. A few years ago, he conducted a study on the revenue of salespeople over the course of a year. He assigned them to groups of givers, takers, and matchers based on a behavioral questionnaire. 3

Givers were those who were proactive in trying to benefit others, takers were those who were concerned with receiving more than giving, and matchers were those who looked for an equal balance of giving and getting.

Surprisingly, he found that the givers were actually the most productive salespeople. By adding more value to others, they were also able to get more back. And this finding wasn’t just limited to his own study. Grant has found quite a bit of research indicating that givers are the most successful people across all kinds of domains.4

Now, it’s worth noting that givers were often also those at the bottom of the ladder. They were a polarized group, and the difference between those at the top and those at the bottom was determined by whether they were deliberate in ensuring that while giving, they were not compromising their own interests. It was a matter of having effective boundaries.

By going out of your way to provide value – without compromising your own interests – you’re far more likely to inspire the outcome you want when interacting with someone. It might not always happen, but it’s a more certain tactic than plainly expecting.

All You Need to Know

There are a number of complex variables in our environment that interact to produce virtually any outcome in our lives. If we’re careful in optimizing the details of these variables, we can increase the odds of a favorable result.

There are some things, however, that are beyond the control of even a carefully optimized environment. A well-designed environment can improve performance, but performance alone isn’t what directly produces an outcome. For the most part, the final result occurs because of the decisions made by other people and their perception of performance.

Networking has become an aimless term. Few people do it effectively, and for the most part, it’s just a disguise for asking without really showing much in return. There’s a better way to inspire the results you want, and yes it’s strategic, but it takes a human approach.

I. Identify the stakeholders of influence for a particular outcome. These are the people with a disproportionate amount of sway over the direction of a decision. If you can divide the desired result into the different groups of people that have control over how it turns out, whether directly or indirectly, you can better understand what’s required.

II. Once you’ve found the appropriate stakeholders, interact in a meaningful way. Don’t make it about what you want or need. Look to understand their motivations and their needs. If you can identify a potential problem they’re facing, take note. It takes you beyond the transparency of those who simply network, and it builds trust.

III. Don’t expect anything. Use the information you know about what that person is looking for and find a way to go above and beyond to provide them with something that either exceeds their expectations or solves their problem. The best way to get is by giving. Just don’t let the giving compromise your own interests.

The whole process is easier said than done. In theory, even with formal networking, there’s a method to the madness. It’s just that practice often diverges away from theory. Building trust or identifying value-adding opportunities are skills, and they take time and consistency.

Everything around you is built and influenced by people. Give them a reason to work for you.

This article first appeared on Design Luck.