At conferences, well-known scientists and speakers are often surrounded by a group of eager attendees. Those who are perceived as powerful (directors of research centers, heads of departments, presidents of organizations and so forth) are in very high demand, because it is desirable to have an influential person in one’s network. People want to ask more about their work, get their opinions or advice, ask them for jobs, etc. There are numerous reasons why it is useful to make such connections.
We all attempt to create networks that will benefit us professionally, and good networking skills are highly prized (see my blog post: The Networking Connection). To this end, we diligently try to meet people whom we see as potentially useful. Generally, this means seeking out individuals who are well-placed or higher up in the hierarchy than oneself.
I wonder, though, if sometimes we miss half of the picture?
Naturally, we look to those at a more advanced stage of their careers to find mentors and sponsors. But for sustained progress, we need more than just these associations. I believe that we must network with our peers and those who are junior to us as well.
We generally consider our contemporaries to be on the same level as us, and so we may not think of them as valuable contacts. But instead of ignoring these people or seeing them as competitors, we should view them as potential collaborators and partners. With that perspective, we can build strong, supportive relationships that help us throughout our careers. The parallel growth of an entire generation produces the leaders for the future. It’s important to know the person who may head the company of your competitor or supplier, or help you recruit the best talent for your business, or work with you on the best research paper of your life.
It’s also critical to cultivate relationships with those on the lower rungs of the proverbial “career ladder.” These are the people who will still be working when we approach retirement. Although they are are the youngest faces in our teams now, they are our future! I think that it is eminently sensible to support and mentor them as we have been (or wanted to be), and to treat them as valuable colleagues and friends. The most wonderful thing that younger people offer is a fresh and unique outlook. That’s why I really enjoy meeting students at conferences (although I am not yet ready to think of myself as “old”).
Setting aside any career advantage, connecting with folks of all ages and career stages will enhance your life with new perspectives and friendships. Simply put, the best way to network is to realize the value of people, and not just the positions they occupy.
Arti Agrawal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.