The Four Stages of Networking


I’m an introvert, and networking has never come easy. I became a convert overnight when, more than two decades ago, I had a remarkable experience. Through my recruiting connections, I was given the opportunity to organize a career session at a scientific conference. I’m not a meeting planner, but I decided that, since I had been given this chance, I might as well focus on getting the very best speakers that I could find. But there was a hurdle: I had no budget, and the people I wanted to invite charged $10,000 and up to give a talk.

I’ll cut straight to the happy conclusion. After I communicated the possible benefits the speakers could expect from attending an 8,000 attendee biotech meeting in what was still a rather new industry (and arranging to have their books and materials on sale at the site), I convinced two of the world’s best public speakers to attend: Dr. Ken Blanchard, author of One Minute Manager, and Dr. Edward de Bono, author of Six Thinking Hats and numerous other books on the thinking process.

The event was a huge success—the single largest audience that conference had ever seen—and the connections I made with those two key speakers continued for years. What I learned, about networking and the value of making good connections, has remained with me to this day. I found, thanks to Dr’s de Bono and Blanchard, that despite being an introvert, I could integrate this practice into my life successfully.

Four stages of learning

At the meeting, de Bono talked about how we learn a new skill, such as learning to drive a car. Do you remember how uncomfortable it was at first? You knew next to nothing about how to do it, and reading the manual in the glove compartment wouldn’t help. The only thing you could do was to get behind the wheel and actually try it.

It’s the same with networking. As in the four stages of learning (frequently attributed to Abraham Maslow), you start out “unconsciously incompetent.” In other words, you have no idea how complex the task in front of you is. We all think we know how to network. And yet, it has a complexity that baffles a lot of us introverts.

There are still easy and effective actions you can take when you are unconsciously incompetent. For example, you might network with peers. Exchanging information with people at your level who are going through the same career stage can be a productive entry into this practice. My first advice here is “No, LinkedIn is not a networking site.” While the site would disagree, I can’t tell you how many people think they are networking when they are simply sending out the basic stock verbiage from that website to invite people they don’t know to “connect” with them. (Want to improve your response rate? Don’t use stock invites! Customize every brief LinkedIn invitation and you’ll double your response rate.)

LinkedIn is a great tool for a bit of occasional self-promotion and to keep your rolodex “live and updated.” But real networking happens in the trenches, in the rest of your life.

You will move through that unconsciously incompetent state in networking into the next learning phase, which is where you become consciously incompetent. You’ll need to develop a thick coat of armor, because you’ll be out there making mistakes—and you’ll know it. A great part of your success will be because you’ll remember each of these lessons so well!

Let’s say that you want to introduce yourself to the VP of Research of XYZ Pharma, who is also a part of the social committee you’ve volunteered for at a national meeting being held in your backyard. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable, and perhaps that discomfort will never go away. But after you’ve said hello and shaken hands, Dr. Smith looks you in the eye and says, “Tell me about yourself.”

Which one of these replies do you think comes from the networking newbie?

“I’m a cell biologist trained in Dr. Patel’s lab at Berkeley, now working over at Jumbo Biotech. I have significant research experience in improving efficiency of various cell culture systems under a range of reactor conditions, as well as working up serum-free cell culture media formulations. I’ve applied at XYZ Pharma, and would love to hear about anything that you might have available for someone 5 years out of their Ph.D. Any chance we could discuss that?”


“I’m a cell biologist trained in Dr. Patel’s lab at Berkeley, now working at Jumbo Biotech. My colleagues and I have just published in Contract Pharma on a method to improve the efficiency of cell culture systems under a variety of environmental conditions. My own focus has been on cell culture media formulations, including serum free methods and related analytics. I love the fact that our work has already impacted the company’s product development pipeline. If there’s any way that we can work together with your team, I sense that our efforts in cell culture processing may fit nicely into your research mission.”

Hopefully you recognize that the first answer comes from the newbie. As I’ve often said in this column, it’s a cardinal sin to directly ask about job opportunities when you are early in the networking interaction. Instead, it’s best to show a more general interest in what you have in common with XYZ, as the second answer did (as opposed to the sledgehammer approach of a job inquiry). The more studied second reply also expresses both the “we” of the work you do as well as the “I.” Overall, these qualities of the second reply will, I assure you, leave a valuable impression behind with your contact.

Moving toward competence

After you’ve bumbled around and made a few mistakes—which you now consider solid lessons along the networking trail—you’ll find yourself developing competence in your approach. But just as you arrive at this stage, you will start to feel that everything you say and do – every networking call or meeting at a social event – has to be perfectly thought-out before delivery. Yes, you’ve become competent, but it’s still not easy. Networking at this stage requires that you carefully plan every step. This is conscious competence.

Let’s stay that you’ve been offered an opportunity to meet with one of your LinkedIn connections face-to-face. That person is a peer, but she works at a company that you’ve long admired and in a job category you’ve been interested in moving towards. What do you do – enjoy your coffee and talk about the kids you have in common, or drive forward with a series of questions that get to the bottom of what you’ve been longing to know about how she transitioned into a career in regulatory affairs?

The answer is, both. Newbie networkers generally go into a meeting like this well-prepared—but that usually means a yellow notepad with a series of questions. That’s OK, because you’ll need those questions about her career track. But, done the wrong way and your approach can come across as one-sided. Talking about those kids for a while first can lead to questions about childcare and the work environment, which can then lead to questions about regulatory affairs as a career path. Make sure you have a warm feeling of friendliness develop before you pull out your yellow pad! By being consciously competent, you’ll recognize that people need to warm up, find common ground, and not just buzz through a Q&A session.

As with my experience, you won’t even know it when you hit the next level of networking. Someday soon you’ll find yourself working in the lab, perhaps thinking through an equation that is troubling you, when you’re interrupted. An Assistant Professor from the local U is being shown through the laboratories, and despite the fact that your mind never really leaves that equation in front of you, you connect with a solid handshake and comment on an article you saw her publish recently, followed by a short discussion about a possible tie-in to a project you’ve been working on. Ten minutes later, you’ve got both the solution to your equation and a new networking contact under your belt. Bingo! You’ve become unconsciously competent. Networking has now become both a career- and life-enhancing tool.

For me, there is no greater feeling than to think back on all the connections I’ve made and how we have enhanced each others’ lives. I hope you feel the same way about networking.