Even Harvard Says Networking Events Are a Waste of Time — 3 Things to Try Instead

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June 16, 2024 at 12:4AM UTC

If you also recoil at the prospect of making small talk, chances are you’re among the camp of people who consider networking events a soul-sucking, anxiety-inducing waste of time. As it turns out, you might not be off the mark, according to a Harvard Business Review writer.

Derek Coburn, author of “Networking Is Not Working” and CEO of a so-called “un-networking community” in Washington, D.C., backed this view in a popular HBR op-ed. Despite the unquestioned status of networking events as a necessary evil in the lives of most professionals, Coburn asserts that, in reality, these events are more trouble than they’re worth. The problem, he says, is that most of us see networking as mandatory without ever pausing to gauge its results.

“Regardless of how you define networking, your success will be directly tied to your ability to interact with people looking to achieve many of the same things you are,” Coburn wrote. “The most basic problem with traditional networking events is that they are mixing bowls for professionals who are there for different reasons. Everyone there is focused on his or her own personal agenda, whether it’s signing a new client, creating awareness for their business, or connecting with someone in the hopes of developing a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Due to the fact that attendees of these events are all “playing a different game," he added, in the end there are usually “no clear winners.”

“Too many professionals are quick to attend yet another networking event, when in reality, they should be spending that time focusing more on their existing relationships,” he wrote. “My definition of ‘networking’ is any activity that increases the value of your network or the value you contribute to it.”

To that end, here are a few substitutes to networking events that are likelier to yield high-value returns: 

1. Joining a club.

When people gather for a reason beyond vague “networking” purposes, the connections they make are more likely to be genuine. Say you join (or host!) a book club where you happen to meet a couple of professionals in your same field. Or maybe instead of reading, it’s a run club you choose to link up with. Regardless of the specific activity, having something beyond the scope of transactional career needs to bond over will elevate these connections in the way a networking event couldn’t.

2. Rekindling connections you already have.

To Coburn’s point, rather than pour all your effort into making new connections for the sake of their novelty, reallocate that time instead to reaching out to a connection you haven’t spoken to recently. A connection is only as valuable as it is current, so don’t make the mistake of taking a “one-and-done” approach to building your network.

3. Volunteering.

A perfect antidote to the often soul-sucking nature of traditional networking events is volunteering. In spaces like these, you’re likely to meet people with whom you share similar values. And in knowing that you dedicated time to a cause you care about, you’ll never walk away wondering what the point of your evening was.

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