You've got networking all wrong
Ted was a wizard at negotiation.
He had been with the company for twenty years, rising through the ranks by consistently cutting one lucrative deal after another. He ran circles around everyone else in the room, convincing even his toughest opponents that their best bet was to throw in with him. Let’s grow the pie before we slice it up, he told them.
So when he needed reinforcements going into a big meeting with a customer or competitor, I was happy to volunteer to be his lieutenant.
I was the new kid on the block, with the company only a couple years. But I was a better writer than he was, and I had hard quantitative skills that he lacked, so when Ted needed someone to edit a business plan or ground-truth his assumptions with good analytics, I dropped everything and jumped on it.
It was a win-win. I covered his blind spots, and he let me learn how to put big deals together.
I was like a remora swimming with a shark in the shark tank -- along for the ride and snatching up the occasional morsel.
In the back of my mind, I thought being a good apprentice made sense. If his stock kept rising at the company, mine might rise with it. Or if he ever got tired of the company’s policies and politics and jumped ship, I could follow him.
But it didn’t work out that way.
When a new CEO came in, Ted was put in the penalty box. He was reorganized under his nemesis, one of his own former employees, who didn’t have an ounce of Ted’s talent and creativity.
Secretly, I hoped this would be my chance. I hoped Ted would rebel against the indignity and strike out on his own. If he started his own company or went to work for a competitor, I could help him build his team out.
But he stayed put and knuckled under.
Then there was Mike. He literally wrote the book about getting the most complicated real estate deals approved. So when he needed someone to tweak a map or a set of plans, I got it done right away. But when the economy soured, he was pushed into early retirement. Instead of inheriting his projects, I watched them get farmed out to consultants.
I saw it over and over again. People who I thought were masters of the universe ended up fizzling on me.
My strategy had been simple. Learn from them. Imitate them. Emulate them. Do good work and keep them coming back for more. But it had gotten me nowhere.
I idolized them and did everything I could to please them, but what did I get in return? Some opportunities to observe and learn and grow, but never an opportunity to do bigger, more important work.
It was only after I started my own business that I figured out why they had been the wrong people to focus on.
Suddenly, I found myself reconnecting with and doing deals with colleagues I had only had casual acquaintance with before. We used to pass each other in the hallway or in the elevator, but we had always worked on different projects in different departments. We had a respectful awareness of each other’s work, but no real opportunity to work together until now.
Like me, they had moved on in search of better opportunities and more freedom. Now, we were putting our talents together to launch campaigns and build businesses. We were comparing notes, sharing contacts, and cutting across the silly organizational silos that used to keep us apart at our old jobs.
That’s when it occurred to me that these were the people I should have been focused on all along.
Unlike the old masters of the universe, they weren’t at the peak of their game yet. They were still waiting for their chance to get in the game.
They weren’t grandfathered into the company’s generous old pension program. They weren’t bound by golden handcuffs or tangled up in golden parachutes. They weren’t afraid to take risks. They were the future.
That’s why I was wrong to prioritize a few strong connections with a few already established leaders. It was the weaker connections with less-established colleagues that ultimately opened up more opportunities for both of us.
It’s kind of like the old saying that’s attributed to the hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”
Which probably applies as much to people as to hockey pucks.
You have to move toward the people who are the future. Not toward the people who are stuck in the past.
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