Building meaningful relationships through networking

Esade Careers

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In this episode of Career Beats, Vishal Thacker, brand strategist, speaker, consultant, and Esade MBA alumni, will be talking about how to build meaningful relationships through networking. Listen to the episode if you want to know how to improve your networking skills and build a strong network by switching your networking approach from a transactional mindset to a relationship mindset and achieving your professional goals in the long run. TRANSCRIPT

Carmen González: Hi, listeners. I’m Carmen González, Associate Director of Esade Careers, Coach and passionate about unlocking talent. I’m so pleased to be here with you today.

Who hasn’t felt uncomfortable when networking during a work-related cocktail reception or conference? For most of us, networking doesn’t come easy, and it’s normal to feel unsure about how best to interact with someone that we barely know or don’t know at all. How to best introduce oneself? How to small-talk naturally? These are some of the questions that we’ll answer in today’s episode, “The Secret to Love Networking.” And, for this, we have the absolute pleasure of having Vishal Thacker.

Vishal is a brand strategist, consultant and speaker who helps brands, founders and career-changers achieve their goals through the power of stories and connections. After nearly a decade in branding, he now works with business school graduates to help them gain self-awareness and make meaningful career decisions, something he decided to do when he was pursuing his MBA here at Esade. Networking is a significant part of his toolkit, and he has used it for his own career, to develop his business. And he now also helps MBAs use the power of networking to build meaningful connections and fulfil their goals.

Vishal, thank you for being with us today. Welcome to the show.

Vishal Thacker: Hey, good morning, Carmen. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Carmen González: Thanks for being with us. So, at Esade Careers we always talk about the importance of networking with our students. So, let me start with a critical question: For you, what makes networking so important?

Vishal Thacker: Alright. The thing that makes networking important to me is that, fundamentally, people are the gate-keepers to opportunities and decision-makers. That’s fundamentally what it comes down to. We have this tendency, whether it’s as job-seekers or… Especially, I’m going to focus on job-seekers in this context. We have this tendency to believe that an opportunity is presented forth by a company or that the problem someone is experiencing is being experienced by a company. When you think about it like that, it’s very ambiguous who is really facing this problem, who is really dishing out this opportunity. It’s hard to crystalize on someone who truly owns that position who is then going to take a decision about it. We also have this tendency to believe that we have to send in our applications online and so on and so forth. But, at the end of the day, the request for an opening, whether it’s published or unpublished, comes from someone who has a requirement in their team to solve a problem. Ok, it’s a value, and that’s the person who is going to make the decision. So, at the end of the day, it’s all about people, because they’re the gate-keepers, right? So, at the end of the day, it’s about knowing the people and what they’re going through, what they’re facing, what their needs are and how we can fulfil that and where we can fit in with their world-view. And that’s really what networking comes down to. For me, it’s understanding their world-view and understanding how we can fit in.

Carmen González: Understanding the others, right?

Vishal Thacker: Yeah, exactly.

Carmen González: Yeah, that’s amazing. And what do you think is wrong with how people typically approach networking? And what could they do differently?

Vishal Thacker: So, a couple of things that I’ve seen time and time again, I would say, from the students that I’ve worked with and it’s also a mistake that I was making in the past before I perfected my own strategy… So, I’ve identified three key mistakes that, I would say, people are doing. The first one is that we have this tendency to approach networking as a transactional experience; we approach it as a transaction, as kind of a trade, right? “I give you something; you give me something. You get me a referral.” And, as we enter this transactional… As we enter networking from a transactional mindset, we also have a tendency to approach it from the point of view of ‘taking,’ right? Because we’re going, “How am I going to get a better deal here?,” in a way. At some subconscious level, that’s the narrative with which we’re going in to a networking conversation.

Carmen González: Rather than giving, right?

Vishal Thacker: Yeah, rather than giving, on the first side. But, also, more importantly, we should take a moment to step out of the transactional view of networking to go into a relational view of networking, because it’s the relation that’s going to lead to some value for both of us. As opposed to, if I think of… If I think, “Okay, how am I going to…?” Let’s say, if I meet someone and I’m only thinking about what I’m going to get out of this conversation as opposed to how I can build a meaningful connection with this person, then the likelihood that it’s going to result in something beautiful over the long-term is lesser. But, if I go in with the view thinking, “How do I build a meaningful relation with this person?”, than the likelihood that something beautiful will happen is more, right? So, that’s the first one. I think we have the tendency to approach it in a transactional way as opposed to a relational way. The second thing that I would also identify as a problem and that a lot of us approach networking with, especially from a career-changing and job-search point of view, is that we have a tendency to not look at the full person; we have a tendency to look at the person only in terms of their role, right? Let’s say, for example, if I’m interested in… I don’t know… If I’m interested in getting into Pathways in Amazon, which is obviously a popular candidate for a lot of MBAs, and I find someone who’s doing Pathways in Amazon, I have a tendency to talk to them only as if there’s nothing else in their life; they’re just Pathways in Amazon for me, you know? So, for that one-hour or 25-minute or 45-minute conversation that I have with them, I’m reducing that person to someone who does Pathways in Amazon, but they’re a lot more than that, right? And, so, in a way, we’re not allowing the full person to show up. We’re actually just reducing them to that aspect and, therefore, we can’t relate to them fully.

Carmen González: So, it’s also about curiosity, right? Having the curiosity to learn as much as possible about the other person.

Vishal Thacker: Yeah, I think there’s a sense of, a sort of deeper interest in terms of the other person and who they are and why they’ve taken the decisions that they’ve taken, right? Because I think there are also two ways of approaching this, like, if we were to break this down a little bit more. When we approach this person as that role, we have a tendency to ask questions and to drive the conversation only about the nature of the work and the nature of the job. And, so, it never becomes… It’s not a rich conversation, right? It’s a conversation that only serves that purpose, which is the third mistake which I’ll get to in a bit. But, instead, if we were to talk about the full person, we can actually understand their story and why they took the decisions they took. How is their current decision… How do they see their current decision playing out in their future, right? How do they see their future changing through what they’re doing right now? And, so, what we can actually do by asking questions that are more holistic about the individual is that we can get much more valuable information on which to take a decision for ourselves, right? So, let’s say, going back to the example, if I’m a student who’s interested in Pathways in Amazon, it’s one thing to know how to get into the position and what the position entails and, you know, the nature of the work and how bad the hours are or what the culture is like. That’s one side of the conversation. That’s fine. But the other side of the conversation is a lot richer if I can truly understand what made the person choose this over something else and how I see this person’s career panning out as a result of that decision, right? What is it that they value? And, so, how do they feel that those values are fulfilled through that decision? So, by answering those kinds of questions… For example, in the case of someone who’s made a career transition, I can explore what was it about… How they approached a specific transition aspect; maybe they went from engineering to something else, how did they approach that? Because, that way, if I get more information about the person from a holistic standpoint, I can actually take a clearer decision because I’m obviously not just a role. I’m a full person who’s trying to get into a role. So, it sheds more light on my own process in a way. You see what I mean?

Carmen González: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great view. Thank you.

Vishal Thacker: Yeah, I’m just… I have a tendency to go on for quite some time, so, if I do, please feel free to check me and keep me in line and go back. [laughs] Because I clearly love this topic and I can talk about it endlessly… I think the third thing I’ve noticed… So, going back, the first one is that we approach it transactionally as opposed to relationally; the second one is that we have a tendency to not focus on the full person but focus on the person as a role; and the third one is that we’re too focused on the outcome, where we approach it… Again, I think this is also a different translation of both of these points of view, but, at the end of the day, we’re always thinking about… In a way, we are… At some unconscious level we are aware that we are starting the relationship with the specific goal of getting a referral or getting an offer or landing a project. We are not starting the relationship for the sake of building a relationship. We’re starting the relationship for the sake of “I need ‘X’,” right? And, so, we have this outcome-based thinking when we approach these relationships, which fundamentally creates a process that’s not interesting, and, so, no one actually enjoys the process of getting to know the person and of actually continuing to know the person. Because, at the end of the day, it’s “Did I get ‘X’? If I did, Ok, fine. And, if I didn’t, then the relationship seems, kind of, unnecessary.” And that’s kind of sad actually because we’re talking about a person here.

Carmen González: Yeah… That’s lovely. And, we really want to learn how to love networking. So, how can we enjoy the process instead of feeling that it’s something we have to do, like an obligation?

Vishal Thacker: Yeah, that’s kind of that point again, right, from the… Yeah, we approach it from a results point of view as opposed to the process point of view. So, one of the things I feel about enjoying the process... There are some very interesting thoughts that have come from Naval Ravikant. Naval Ravikant is the founder of AngelList and he’s an investor in Silicon Valley. He is… In Silicon Valley, he’s considered one of the “conscious voices of Silicon Valley.” And, so, in a way, he has very interesting points of view on how to approach business. So, there are a few things that he has said about networking, which I have tried to bring into my own practice, so I want to share that with you. And, the first thing that he says is that, in terms of enjoying the process as opposed to looking for the outcome… He has this idea where he says: “Be interested now and you will be interesting later.” So, “be interested now and you’ll be interesting later.” I think this, for me, really sums it up, because, first of all, networking is about being interested and being interesting, being interested in the sense of, “Oh, I’m curious and I’m asking a lot of questions and I’m getting valuable, insightful information from this person about this person.” But, being interesting is “I have something to offer. I have a position or I have an interesting story to share,” right? Or, “I have an interesting point of view to share,” as well. So, I feel like the whole play is about being interested and being interesting. But, when Naval Ravikant sums it up as, “You first be interested and then you will be interesting,” I think that’s very interesting, right?

Carmen González: Absolutely.

Vishal Thacker: Because most of us, we approach… Generally, when you think about it, in the business world, we’ve been taught to be talkers, right? So we have this tendency to think, “Oh, I have to be interesting.” We have this pressure to be interesting. But, actually, you can, kind of, just take that pressure off of yourself and go, “I’m just going to be interested and see what happens.” 

Carmen González: Yes, absolutely. And being interested is linked with being motivated, and motivation is contagious, right?

Vishal Thacker: Right.

Carmen González: And that helps to have the spark that you need to be interesting, so…

Vishal Thacker: Yeah, for sure. I thinking having some deep curiosity about something, which you can then use to clarify your own thinking, your own decision or career process, I think that’s what it’s really about, right? Because, actually, we forget that, actually… Let’s say that we’re in a place… Going back to the example of someone who wants to switch from, say, engineering to marketing or someone who wants to go into Amazon Pathways after the MBA, there’s always going to be someone who is going to relate to where you are in your story, because it’s very likely that they’ve been there in your story, right? They’ve been there in their story, sorry. So, they will also have been at a point where they were trying to make a similar change that you’re trying to make. So, in a way, we have to have this deep sense of curiosity to shed some light on some aspect of our own thinking by having that curiosity about the other person’s thinking, right? And, so, when we direct that curiosity towards them, we can actually unlock a lot of layers and we can make things very interesting for us and for them. So, yeah, for me that’s actually the key. And, I like the way you put it when you said that motivation is contagious and curiosity is… It kind of, in a way… It shows motivation because you can say, “I’m very motivated”, but, actually, when you ask a lot, it shows that you’re very motivated. So, yeah, that was an interesting thought.

Carmen González: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for that. And, Vishal, now that we live in a hybrid world, what’s the best way to network in this current, hybrid world?

Vishal Thacker: Right, so, for me when I’ve been on the side of the presenter in the hybrid setting, I feel a massive sense of disengagement with the room, because I see a lot of people who have their cameras off or they’re not engaging a lot. And, later on, that obviously has a ripple effect when you want to build the relationship and when you want to connect with the person who might have been, even in the hybrid setting, who might be interesting for you to connect with, right? And, so, what I’ve seen, actually, is that, anyone who has the willingness and the proactiveness to go, “Ok, I’m going to switch on my camera; I’m going to raise my hand; I’ve made my mind up and I’m going to ask a question; I’m going to make an interesting comment; I’m going to share something”… Those are the people who instantly stick out, especially in a hybrid setting because the engagement is much harder to… It’s much harder to feel connected to someone in a hybrid setting than in an in-person setting. And, so, we have to take that extra initiative; we have to take that extra ownership to go, “Ok, I’m going to make sure that I least get on that person’s radar.” But, not just for the sake of that but because “I genuinely have something of interest to say or something to ask.” And, as a means of doing that, then create… At least plant a seed in their mind: “Hey, remember when we met at this online event? I’d like to pick up the conversation with you.” But, fundamentally for me, whether it’s a hybrid or in-person setting, taking ownership of the conversation is so crucial because… This is something I see a lot even with students who want to network with me, for example, where I often get students going, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you about something.” I come into the meeting and they never drive the conversation towards, “Okay, so this is what I wanted to talk to you about.” So, in a way, if you are the networker, then it’s your responsibility to go, “I’m going to take ownership of this conversation and move it in a direction that’s useful for both of us” and then moving to wrap it up, as well, which I feel is something we don’t do. And, in the hybrid setting, it’s that much more important because the engagement is lower.

One thing that I would recommend to students is: Ask yourselves how you feel in a hybrid setting when you are the one presenting? How do you want people in a hybrid setting to respond to you when you’re on the presenter side? That’s the behaviour that you want to do when you’re networking in a hybrid setting; the behaviour that you hope you receive is the behaviour you want to get.

Carmen González: Yeah, that’s great advice, to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Vishal Thacker: Exactly.

Carmen González: At all times, right?

Vishal Thacker: Yeah, that’s essentially it.

Carmen González: That’s amazing, Vishal. Thank you so much. So, we have some questions from our students for you to answer in a very practical way. So, I’ll start with the first one. How best to break the ice in an online networking situation? We were talking about this hybrid world, but, specifically in an online situation, how do you start? Do you have a practical recipe for this?

Vishal Thacker: Right. First, I have three questions that I ask anyone in any setting: One, “How is your day going?”; two, “What are you working on right now?”; and, three, “What’s the…?” Oh, the third one, damn… The third one’s not suitable, but the first two, these two, I always go for it, like “How’s your day going right now?” and the second question, “What are you working on right now?”. The second question, especially, “What are you working on right now?”, helps people offload what’s on their minds, what’s front of their minds; they can let it out. So, that’s a great way to build a connection. If you’re meeting someone one-on-one in an online setting, I would say starting a conversation with this is a good…

Carmen González: With these two questions…

Vishal Thacker: Yeah, right. 

Carmen González: Yeah, great. So, second question from our students. How to best approach someone that you don’t know at all through LinkedIn?

Vishal Thacker: Right, cool. In terms of cold-calling, which I call ‘cold-writing’ on LinkedIn, I would say to always customise the invite. And when you do customise the invite, don’t go into a narrative of: “I am ‘X’. I’m studying at Esade. I’m doing this. I want to do that.” No. You want to go, “Hey, I noticed you are doing this and I’m interested in hearing about that.” Because you’re putting the focus on the other person. So: customise the invite and make it about them, and have a call-to-action; that’s it.

Carmen González: Amazing. And final question: How to evaluate the quality of my list of contacts?

Vishal Thacker: Ooh. You have to have a conversation. If you don’t have a conversation, you’ll never know. Yeah, because… It’s a tricky thing, like… Evaluating the quality of your list of contacts is like saying “How do I measure the person?” And, so, [laughing] it’s a hard thing to do. And, so, the best thing you can do is actually have a conversation with them and know what matters to you, what you are trying to get out of the conversation. And, if you feel that you’re getting that out of the conversation, you can say it’s a high-value contact. If you’re not, then you say it’s not that. But, for that, it’s very subjective. You have to know what it is you’re trying to achieve from these types of conversations and you need to have these conversations to see if that’s fulfilled. There’s no other way to find out. You just have to do it. 

Carmen González: Perfect. That’s amazing. So, Vishal…

Vishal Thacker: Actually, can I add one last thing to that last point?

Carmen González: Absolutely.

Vishal Thacker: So, in terms of knowing how to value the contacts in your list, essentially, it is about defining your prospecting strategy, which is basically who the people are that come into your list. If you have a clear prospecting strategy, then things will be a lot easier going forward. And, generally, a good prospect, depending on your situation, is someone who: a) has a decision-making capacity; b) has a problem that needs to be solved or a value that needs to be created; and c) has a budget. If you can identify that this person has these three qualities, then that would be a high-value prospect for you to go into, yeah. But that’s in terms of actual, final-stage decision-making, in terms of putting pen to paper but if…

In terms of more early-stage networking, when it’s about finding a way to clarify your decisions, then that’s a bit trickier.

Carmen González: Perfect, that’s very practical advice. Thank you. And, Vishal, what is your main piece of advice for our students to build a strong career related to networking or in general?

Vishal Thacker: Right, I would say ask deeper questions, question everything, especially advice you get from alumni or the podcast. [laughs] But, no, seriously, though, ask people questions and question everything because it’s the route to building better relationships and networking but it’s also the route to understanding your own motivations and your own drivers, like, what are you really trying to do? You need to question yourself, as well, first. So, yeah, question everything and ask people questions. For me, that’s where it all starts. Yeah, that’s where the magic happens.

Carmen González: Fantastic. So, Vishal, I’m sure our students will want to learn more about you, so where can they find you?

Vishal Thacker: They can find me on LinkedIn, so… Right at the end, where you have your custom URL, put in ‘beyourownstory’. That’s me. Drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to talk to you. Be sure to customise your invite or, otherwise, I won’t respond. [laughs] And, yeah, I think that would be the best place to contact me for now, and, then, after that, I’ll be happy to have a conversation and see where it goes.

Carmen González: Perfect. Vishal, thank you so much for being with us today. All your insights about networking have been fantastic. I’m sure that our students will feel much more confident now when networking. We’ll soon have our MBA Career Day as part of our spring Recruitment Fair, so I’m sure they’ll be able to apply all your practical tips. So, thank you so much.

Vishal Thacker: A pleasure. Thanks for having me, Carmen.

Carmen González: And the Career Beat goes on next month. In our next episode, we’ll talk about another key topic for a successful career: the importance of mentorship and how it can be the best trampoline for our careers. And, for this, we’ll have two special guests: Alex Gash, Senior Director at Gartner, and Lotem Alon, Business Vertical Lead at Verbit. Alex and Lotem are both Esade alumni and they created the first-ever Esade mentorship programme, so I’m very excited to discuss the power of mentorship with them. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode of Career Beats.

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