The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Networking for Architects
In many respects, networking should be one of the most enjoyable activities we partake in as professionals. Networking is the basic process of transferring ideas between people who share similar interests, values, and beliefs.
Does this sound familiar?
Well, it should.
When you hang out with your friends, aren’t you doing the same thing? Sure, the context is a little less formal, but you’re still interacting with people whose company you enjoy - trying to make a stronger connection.
That’s not to say that you need to network with everyone or that you’re even supposed to get along with everyone. In fact, networking in professional circles can be about a variety of things beyond individual connections.
You might be a fairly introverted person, just looking to practice your communication skills. You could be someone looking to help others in your community.
So What’s the Big Deal?
Networking can be done well and it can be done ever so poorly. I take the connections I make in my personal life and in my career very seriously. That’s because I’ve seen firsthand the positive potential those relationships can create for everything I do and who I strive to be.
Ok. That’s all well and good, but let’s look at it through a different lens.
Have you ever seen a spaghetti western before?
They were low-budget ‘Western’-genre films from the 1960s, often produced and directed by Italian creatives. Hundreds of these movies were made in a very short period of time and became vehicles to launch the careers of several Hollywood stars.
You may have heard of a relatively unknown actor from these films. He goes by ‘Clint Eastwood.’
The one spaghetti western that critics often consider to be the most influential of the period is a film titled, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
I bet you’ve heard that title before - even if you didn’t know the context before reading this post. It’s the film that is credited with propelling Clint Eastwood into stardom.
At this point, you’re very likely asking yourself, “Ok, but what in the heck does that have to do with Networking, Mike!?”
A fair question to be sure. Let’s break it down, shall we?
Sometimes I try to use other disciplines and media as a contextual lens through which to understand my own.
In this case, ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,’ is the perfect foil for what we’re talking about today.
The film centers around the simple idea that there’s a treasure buried out in the world and each of the main characters - “The Good”, “The Bad”, and “The Ugly” are in a race to find it first. Each has a well developed reason for pursing the treasure and each has a set of skills to make it happen.
When it comes to networking, I think of three types of personalities.
Can you guess what they are?
Yep. I’m not even going to say it. I think you can guess where we’re going here.
Let’s talk about each of these archetypes and the type of networking results you can expect.
Even though the title of the film starts with “The Good,” I’m actually going to start this discussion off with “The Bad.” (We’ll save the best for last)
The greatest enemy against networking is apathy.
I’ve seen so many of my friends and peers avoid networking because it either doesn’t come easy to them or because they don’t want to put themselves out there.
The problem with that is that one day, they inevitably wake up in a position where they want to change their circumstances for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s to change a job. Sometimes it’s to get a passion project going.
Either way, their connections aren’t as strong as they could be and are far fewer because they didn’t put in the work to reach out and make themselves known to others.
There’s nothing worse than putting a lot of effort into your career, only to find that no one cares.
If you surround yourself with people who are engaged with the work you’re doing and are genuinely interested in your success, you are far more likely to succeed in this world.
Make no mistake - architecture is a team sport.
So what does apathy look like in networking? It’s simple - it looks like someone phoned it in.
It looks like a LinkedIn profile that’s been barely started. It looks like an empty chair at a local charity event. It looks like coasting.
Now, let’s be clear. I don’t mean that someone who doesn’t network isn’t doing their job to the best of their ability. It could be far from that.
What I am saying is that networking can expand the opportunities for your work, your personality, your voice and your ideas to be shared with so many more than just those in your immediate circle of peers.
Think of it this way.
You’re stuck in a job that you don’t like and that you wish you could get out of.
What do you do?
If you’ve built connections over time, you might be able to reach out to one them and ask if another firm is hiring. Or even easier, you might ask for some advice for what to do in general.
If you haven’t, you’ll likely just spin and spin and spin at a job that you’ll start to resent, then hate.
Don’t hate your job.
You know how I said the greatest enemy of networking is apathy?
I’m sure you do.
Well, maybe instead, the greatest enemy is actually straight up negligence.
I’m about to tell you a story that is truly ugly in the networking circles. I would say, “Shield your eyes for a moment,” but then you’d obviously not be able to read the story. I apologize ahead of time.
As you’re probably aware, I’m a fan of LinkedIn.
I like it because it’s one of the few places out there that is fairly tame in comparison to the rest of the social media titans. It’s an even playing field for all professionals to come together and network, make connections, and share ideas.
I’ve helped a lot of friends and connections when asked, but there was one instance when someone asked me something that frankly dumbfounded me.
One morning I was opening up my email and noticed that someone had sent me a direct message on LinkedIn. Not too out of the ordinary... yet.
I took a moment to open up the application, read the note and then my jaw slowly started to drop to the floor.
One of the cardinal rules in networking is to never ask for something without at least starting a conversation first. I get a lot of messages that ask me to help someone pass along a resume or a portfolio, but I usually either know that person already or have had a conversation with them previously about their interests.
I don’t just recommend someone without context out of the blue.
The message I received asked for just that. However, that wasn’t the real reason it bothered me. Sometimes I can understand that an inexperienced person may not recognize the rule I described above.
But this, this I can’t get past -
The person who requested my help not only asked for something, but was clearly asking the wrong person entirely.
A simple review of my LinkedIn profile, even if you didn’t know me, would immediately queue you into the fact that I have never worked at the architecture firm Gensler and that I don’t work there currently either. That’s not to say I never would, just that I don’t have any direct affiliation with them other than respecting their fantastic work and influence on the profession.
I’ve never really been mad at the direct messages I’ve received via LinkedIn until this moment.
'The Ugly’ had presented itself.
It was clear and profound disrespect that I felt as I realized that, not only the person reaching out to me missed the fact that I didn’t work at the firm they were trying to get an interview at, but the issue was compounded that I don’t even live in the same city as where the person was trying to work either.
I didn’t know them well.
I can forgive a few things professionally, but don’t ask me to help you with such a careless, neglectful request.
The impression I was left with was one that I’ll probably have of this person for the rest of my professional career.
Even though I may or may not have had any influence over the results, and who knows, maybe this person did end up working at Gensler, it was one of the few times when I was truly appalled by someone's lack of respect.
How long would it have taken to confirm where I worked?
How long would it have taken to say ‘Hi’ before asking me to push their portfolio forward?
I may have been able to help by reaching out to my own contacts there, but I instantly felt professionally betrayed.
Oh, yeah. I also replied to the message.
I felt that, at the very least, I needed to acknowledge what had happened. My answer was a bit snarky, I’ll admit, but it was clear and to the point.
Maybe next time, that person will think twice about doing that to someone who could have helped.
As promised, ‘The Good’ of Networking is the best to abide by and I’ve saved it here for last.
I may not have made every move in my career correctly, but I do believe that I’ve learned a lot from networking properly.
'The Good’ comes down to positive action. You need to be active in not only your professional circles, but also the ties that hold your community together. It’s interesting when I think back on my own experiences with networking because I’ve rarely seen any of them as pure ‘networking.’
I think networking essentially works best when you’re not trying to network at all.
Let me explain another way.
In 2011, I began a 6 year posting on the local American Institute of Architects Buffalo/WNY Board of Directors. At the time, I just wanted to get involved in any way I could to learn the ropes from more experienced architects in whatever capacity was available.
I knew inherently that if I did a good job to help promote the AIA’s mission by building up programs that had been neglected, such as the Emerging Professional’s Committee, I could establish myself as someone in the community that others might either follow or imitate.
I wasn’t necessarily trying to meet more people, but I knew that it would naturally happen over time as I helped with each new item on the Board’s Agenda.
The Good of Networking Manifests in Mysterious Ways
It’s no secret that I’ve always believed in a simple truth - Make your own luck.
When you work hard at something, you do it well, and you do it strategically, you’ll be ready for opportunities that present themselves in your life.
I remember when Shawn Wright was first invited to sit on the Board of Directors. Each year, anywhere from one to three Board Members are cycled off of the Board and new members are brought on for a three year term.
Shawn in particular has a great aptitude towards business and was soon elevated to the position of Treasurer after accepting a Board Position.
I worked with Shawn for years on this issue and that issue as part of the Board. I continued to build up the programming that the Emerging Professionals Committee was offering for the Chapter. It was a slow, arduous process.
But it was consistent, positive change that I was making.
After a few years, Shawn and I had what I would consider a mutual respect for each other, what we were about professionally and who we were as people.
In Mid 2015 (four years after I started my position on the Board of Directors), I had an opportunity to interview with Young + Wright Architectural. I met with, you guessed it, Shawn and we discussed to possibility of me working there full time.
About a week later, I interviewed formally with Shawn and Jerry Young. I brought full-size drawings. I brought a portfolio I slaved over for days. I brought a copy of my latest resume.
You know what’s funny about networking though?
It turns out that after years of Board Meetings, working on AIA projects and helping me put together several of the programming events for the Emerging Professionals, Shawn knew who I was and what I was about.
I have no doubt that he had some discussions with a few mutual colleagues we had at the time to confirm his suspicions I’d be a good fit for the job, but I’d imagine that they were few and far between.
I didn’t open the portfolio once during the entire interview.
I didn’t need the resume.
I just needed to be me, tell my story, and explain why I’d be the best candidate for the job.
Three and half years later, I’m still working diligently at Young + Wright to prove that right.
One Final Lesson
If you want to network properly and get the most out of the connections you have professionally, you have to put in the work. It doesn’t come together all at once.
You may not see the results for years. For some connections, you may never see the results.
But I will tell you this - if you can provide value to others, help where help is needed, and keep moving forward, you’ll wake up and realize that it’s one of the best investments you ever made in your life.
Don’t be the Bad. Don’t be the Ugly.
Strive for Good. It's best to be the hero of your own story.
You may just find yourself riding into the sunset of the best career you could have ever known.