Don't Just Network — Build Your 'Meaningful Network' to Maximize Your Impact
People & Culture

Don't Just Network — Build Your 'Meaningful Network' to Maximize Your Impact

XO Group CEO Mike Steib built his fast-track career on the power of his network. Here's his incredibly granular and specific advice for how to do the same.

Mike Steib is one of those larger than life figures — equipped with preternatural social savvy that makes one assume he must have been born with it. He manages to be boisterous but not overbearing, professionally polished to a high sheen, and magnetic in conversation. Which is why it’s shocking to hear him say that none of this comes easy to him.

He’s an introvert who readily admits that he feels the same awkwardness, anxiety and uncertainty that many of us experience when it comes to meeting new people and intentional networking. Yet, he’s meticulously built an approach to it that’s propelled him upward through leadership roles at NBC and Google at an enviously young age. Today, he’s CEO of XO Group, known for blockbuster milestone brands like The Knot and The Bump. And he’s got a new book coming out next Wednesday, The Career Manifesto. Diving directly into the nitty gritty of how anyone can create an extraordinary life and career, it’s the most tactically detailed book we’ve come across on these topics — ideal for entrepreneurs.

Leafing through an advance copy, we were struck by the sheer depth of the networking advice Steib provides. Here, we’re excited to excerpt a chapter that puts a unique and illuminating spin on the whole concept, why most of us fail to do it well, and what it really takes to forge meaningful, mutually-beneficial relationships. (If you enjoyed Chris Fralic’s piece How to Become Insanely Well-Connected, this is a worthy sequel.)

Read on for Steib’s detailed take on how to turn the strangers who populate our lives every day into valuable and cherished connections.

What ‘Meaningful Networks’ Look Like

Who are the people you personally care about, who in turn care about you? That’s your network. All opportunities for impact in your life will spring from the strength of those relationships. But, if you’re like most well-adjusted people, the word “networking” evokes images of awkward meet and greets, uninvited solicitations, and disingenuous interactions.

The way many people do it is gross. They get in touch out of nowhere in order to work an angle or ask for something under the guise of friendship. Too many people visualize their “network” as a list of names they can utilize to achieve an end goal. This is a mistake. You can do it differently — and when you do, you’ll have a powerful advantage.

If you want to build an effective network, you must focus on what you can do for other people, not what they can offer you. The way I think about it, everyone has four types of networks: Unfamiliar, Familiar, Intimate, and Meaningful. They’re nested concentric circles:

Your Unfamiliar and Familiar Networks are straightforward enough — people you don’t know at all and acquaintances you know a little, respectively. Your Intimate Network includes people you’ve gotten to know quite well. But your Meaningful Network is your true personal network of deep relationships and friendships. It’s your Meaningful Network that will make it possible for you to have the impact with your career and life that you desire.

There are three steps to welcoming more people into your Meaningful Network:

  • Bringing people from your Unfamiliar Network into your Familiar Network by making initial contact and forming a connection.
  • Bringing people from your Familiar Network into your Intimate Network by getting to know them well, understanding your commonalities, and finding ways you can be helpful to them.
  • Bringing people from your Intimate Network into your Meaningful Network by investing in making their life better in an important way.
Your success at building a network is founded on one very important mindset: that you’re doing it based on your desire to know, appreciate, and help other people.

This is the only way to build real and lasting relationships. The help you provide others defines your impact and your life. When you take this approach, something fascinating happens: the relationships you build germinate over the years and come back to help you in unexpected, often life-changing ways. Here’s how to get started.

Unfamiliar → Familiar

This section is for people like me who find chatting up a stranger to be one of the most unnatural and uncomfortable acts in the world. Sadly, I spent years encountering people with fascinating and enriching knowledge, insights and experiences… and failing to get to know them. I have worked for years to develop a set of simple tools for connecting with others.

To make the giant leap with someone from Unfamiliar Network to Familiar Network, rely on these three acts:

1. Appear warm and friendly. Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, identified in a study that human communication is over 55% visual (appearance, body language), 38% vocal (tone, volume, cadence of voice) and 7% verbal (what you actually say). So, to initiate contact and welcome someone in from your Unfamiliar Network, greet them properly:

  • Use open body language - uncross your arms, stand tall, widen your shoulders, don’t block your heart.
  • Bring warmth to your face - lift your chin, make and maintain eye contact, smile.
  • Stretch your right hand forward - warmly, not aggressively. (If you claim the top position in a handshake, that subconsciously communicates your superiority or dominance in a newly-formed relationship. If you do this, you are a douchebag.)
  • Speak in a confident voice - “Hi! I’m Mike Steib! I work down the hall in corporate overhead.”

I know this sounds basic, but most people — especially introverts — get this wrong, physically closing off their body, pasting on a slightly pained-looking smile, darting their eyes around, offering a hesitant handshake. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes paying attention to initial greetings when they happen. Most people are modestly afraid of coming into contact with each other.

If all of this makes you nervous, it’s really effective to work on this proper greeting technique in the mirror. Repetition will help make it feel natural. In particular, maintaining eye contact can be uncomfortable and take rehearsal. Practice on strangers on the sidewalk or people stopped next to you in traffic. If you make eye contact and smile warmly at people, they instinctively smile back.

2. Initiate a brief but enjoyable conversation. If you just say, “Hi,” a person will just say it back. If you say, “Hi, I’m Mike Steib, I live in apartment three — I’m the one with the two little kids always tearing down the hallway,” they will say back, “Hi, I’m Joe Carlon. I live in apartment six — my girlfriend and I have the boxer terrier that’s always barking.” Elicit more information, and then use that to turn the interaction into a quick conversation: “It’s nice to meet you, Joe. Have you always had dogs?” Keep it positive and simple.

Without practice, ending a conversation can be just as awkward as starting one. A local politician with 30 years of service once told me that the key to success in politics is saying hello to each person for 30 seconds, and then making “the slip” — off to another voter for another 30 seconds. So, following an exchange of one or two questions and answers, after your new acquaintance finishes a sentence, you can simply stretch out your hand again, smile and say, “I’m so glad to meet you, Joe. I hope to see you and your dog around here again soon.”

(For more tips on the art of making acquaintances in particular, I encourage you to read the seminal How to Win Friends and Influence People, the obscure but fascinating It’s Not All About ‘Me’ and the very fun How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less.)

3. Remember the person’s name. I am terrible at this. It takes a ton of practice to get half-right, so I can — at least — tell you where we all go wrong. First, in the adrenaline of a new encounter, we just don’t hear the name; the person says it but it doesn’t register. You have to make a habit of listening for it. If you miss it, you have to ask — “I’m sorry, can you say your name again?” There are three tactics I use now to remember names:

  • Repetition. In the course of conversation, repeat the person’s name, “It’s nice to meet you Joe.” “And tell me, Joe, is owning a dog in the city difficult?” Just don’t overdo it.
  • Visualization. If you’re a visual learner, imagine the person’s name written on her forehead or on an imaginary name tag.
  • Associative memory. The human mind doesn’t function like a filing cabinet. It uses associations to retain information. So to remember Joe and his dog Roosevelt, you might think: Neighbor Joe has a thick head of hair. Like Joseph Stalin. Joe Stalin. Kind of a bad guy. But Teddy Roosevelt protected American workers from unfair labor practices. Good guy. That sticks. (People who compete in memory championships say they use similar methods.)

With these techniques, you can break down the uncomfortable barriers that separate you from everyone around you — hundreds of potential acquaintances and future friends who pass through your life each day. Once someone is in your Familiar Network, you’re in a position to turn it into more.

Familiar → Intimate

You now have a strategy for exuding friendliness, overcoming awkwardness, and making people comfortable. The more you do this, the easier it will become. Next, you have the opportunity to really get to know a subset of people with whom you’d like to have a closer connection.

Just about everyone gets this next part wrong. When faced with an interesting new person in our Familiar Network, we tend to make one of two fundamental mistakes. First, we talk about ourselves. We go into overdrive to convince them that we’re interesting and likable, too. Most of us have developed the ability to pivot any conversation back to ourselves. After 5-10 minutes of conversation, we know very little about our new friend.

We make this mistake because it feels good. There’s an innate human desire to be appreciated. When we do all the talking, we rob our new friend of the opportunity to perform this essential act. How did you feel the last time someone you just met kept talking about how wonderful and successful he is? You likely developed, at minimum, a low-grade envy and dislike for this person. What a sad missed opportunity. We expend all this energy trying to get someone to like us, when all she really wants is the opportunity to get us to like her.

So don’t talk about yourself. From now on, use every interaction as a chance to appreciate someone else by investigating their work and interests. “How long have you been doing CrossFit? What are the results? As a vegetarian, is it hard to get enough protein to support all that weight lifting?”

Approach conversations with the mindset of a batting practice pitcher in your new friend’s home run derby of personal greatness.

Avoid temptations to talk about yourself. Pivote their questions about you back to them. Watch how eagerly this person takes the chance to tell you more about his or her passions. As famous adman David Ogilvy said, “If you want to be interesting, be interested.”

The second mistake we all make is conversational cowardice. We keep discussions safe and limited to the surface. Small talk is a fine way to break the ice with your Unfamiliar Network, but you’ll never get to know someone until you move into conversations of substance. Consider the difference between these two interactions with the same person:

Exhibit A

“Have you enjoyed the event?” “Oh, yes, it’s very nice.” “Do you go to many events, Margaret?” “Three or four a year.” “How nice.” “Yes, it’s nice.”

Exhibit B

“So did you hear anything at the event relevant to your work, Margaret?” “The piece about consumer drone tech was interesting.” “Do I remember right that you work for a defense contractor? How do small drones fit into the broader national security picture?” “Oh, it’s a big deal. Imagine a network of internet connected drones…”

With the first approach, we learned that we both thought the event was nice; in the second we got to learn all about cutting-edge new technology. We are often afraid to have deeper conversations because we don’t want to look ignorant about things we don’t know about.

“Todd, you said you work at a Swiss bank — what do you do there?” “Debt capital markets.” “Oh, cool.”

And then you spend the rest of your life not knowing what debt capital markets are and what your new friend does for a living because you’re too afraid to ask. But if Todd is worth getting to know, he won’t care that you’re not familiar with his work. He will probably take your silence to mean you’re not interested in him. So why should he bother getting to know you? Liberating yourself from this fear will open the door to thousands of fascinating conversations.

Here’s a set of questions that are always applicable to someone’s work, and that will encourage them to open up more:

  • Tell me about the business model — who pays whom and who is delivering value to whom?
  • What advantage do you offer over your competitors that get customers to choose you?
  • What drew you to work in this particular industry?
  • How big a piece of the overall business is your division?
  • Are there new technologies affecting your business?
  • It sounds like you’ve been successful? What makes someone unsuccessful in the role?
  • What’s your favorite part of your job and why?

Now that you’ve gotten into mutually fulfilling conversations, each subsequent time you connect, you can get more detail and ask more insightful questions: “How have you been, Todd? I just read in the Financial Times that bond prices have been erratic, did that affect you in any way?”

There’s another hidden benefit of this approach: you become more knowledgeable and interesting to other people based on all the fascinating things you’re learning from your new friends, and you never know where the knowledge you glean might come in handy.

Intimate → Meaningful

As you get to know people better, you can decide where you want to build lasting relationships. There is only one way I know of to bring someone into your Meaningful Network: You’re going to do something important for them.

Bringing someone into your Meaningful Network requires effort and genuine caring for that person. You need to take personal interest in their success. I’d like to suggest three ways you can help others, and in the process grow your Meaningful Network:

1. Share knowledge. Find areas of overlap in your sets of expertise and opportunities to share things you know another person will find illuminating. It can be as simple as relating an interesting and relevant insight that you know, emailing an article, or sending a book with a note. But it’s only useful when you’ve thought hard about it, and you’re sharing something that will be important to the other person. Here’s how this looks:

  • “Todd, I just read this great white paper on bitcoin and blockchain, I feel like you’d get a lot out of this…”
  • “Judith, congrats on the new job. Enclosed please find a copy of the best book I’ve read on starting a new job, The First 90 Days. Call me if you want to compare notes.”
  • “Jordan, I just got an invite to a private class at this new gym but can’t go. You mentioned you love Crossfit — want my ticket?”
And so on. When your knowledge can help other individuals you know be more successful, they’re going to value their relationship with you more.

Over time, that sharing becomes mutual, as they have the urge to repay the favor. Don’t overdo it. Keep it casual, occasional, and commensurate with how well you know them.

Social media can also be a valuable tool for sharing interesting things you know that others don’t — analysis of what’s going on in the news; book recommendations; things that inspire you; insightful articles; etc. If you’re going to invest time in social media, use it to enrich the lives of your connections.

2. Make connections. One of the best ways to help others in your network is to expand their respective networks. Put two people together who end up doing business or being friends and your impact compounds.

Early in your career, your network is relatively weak and requires effort to get started. Seek to get to know and be useful to folks who sit at important network center points.

Recruiters are a great example. Find out who the headhunters are who fill roles around your level in your industry and reach out to them. Tell them you know a bunch of great folks who are always asking you for career advice, and you want to be able to help the recruiter fill rolls when she needs an assist. Each time you connect a recruiter to a good candidate, you’ve helped two people in your network. That recruiter will call you again, creating more opportunities to help.

Other key people who can help jumpstart your network:

  • The people who run the alumni network for your alma mater; they can intro you to other graduates with similar interests and skills.
  • Trade magazine journalists who tend to know key people across the industry. They are often happy to meet off the record if you have interesting insights to share.
  • Consultants, bankers and advisers who serve your industry. They know key decision makers, trends and opportunities at countless companies. They are always looking for angles to develop new business.
  • Social connectors who run clubs or affinity groups that draw impactful people.

3. Offer support and friendship. When you get a new job, a promotion, a big win or major recognition, you're at your most popular. Emails and tweets pour in congratulating you. Some are happy for you; others see your success as a possible opportunity for themselves. When things break the other way and you get passed over or have a failure, your inbox gets a lot quieter and you only hear from your true friends.

Make the decision now to be one of those true friends for others. People in your network need you when they’re struggling. Examples:

  • “Johnny, I heard you just left the company. I doubt you need it, but I’m sending you the info for three headhunters I’ve found to be most useful. Feel free to tell them I sent you…”
  • “Martina, I know you wanted that job. You should have gotten it. Want to grab a drink this week?”

Remember that you’re building a network of people you really like and want to see succeed. The more you contribute to interactions, the more people will look forward to them, and the more likely they are to think of you when they need advice, help and so on. This is all basic stuff the average second grader knows, but somehow we all forget it.

One last anecdote to bring this all together: A couple summers ago, my wife and I took an outdoor high-intensity interval training class we really enjoyed. After the first class, I exchanged pleasantries with the instructor. Introduced myself, remembered his name (Adam) and asked him a bit about his business as a trainer. He turned out to be an entrepreneur and we had enough in common in our work that we talked again after the following class.

After a few interactions, one of us suggested that we get a drink with our significant others that night before dinner. Turns out my new friend had just launched a production company and sold his new book. A couple of weeks later, I found myself in need of a production company for a small video project and called Adam. Mutual benefit. Soon after, he called me with a business idea relevant to both of our work. His book was about to come out, and I was able to organize an event at work with colleagues who’d be interested in his approach to fitness.

We found ourselves proactively looking for ways to help each other, which brought him into my Meaningful Network. If Adam called to ask for a favor, I’d do it with no hesitation. Eventually, we were hanging out one night and I was giving him advice, and he asked why I hadn’t written a book. He offered to introduce me to his agent. Now here we are, and the book is coming out next week.

This same approach has given me the privilege of countless friendships, business deals, career opportunities, social invitations, and even a reception with the president at the White House. All because I was willing to invest in getting to know and helping people I already liked, without any express expectation of getting something in return. Think about it.

Image courtesy of Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images.