The New Rules of Networking

In today's economy, you need to use all the tools technology offers to build your professional network, strengthen your Columbia connections, and advance your career. Sree Sreenivasan, one of the foremost experts on the use (and abuse) of social media, shows you how it's done.

by Kate Lawler Published Spring 2015
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For more networking tips from Columbia staff, faculty, and alumni, as well as a list of career resources at Columbia, visit www.magazine.columbia.edu/networking.

This spring, as Columbia’s 261st academic year draws to a close, almost eight thousand students are packing up their books and polishing their résumés. Most of the Class of 2015 will be looking to launch their careers; others will have earned an advanced degree that will further their established professions. Almost all will enter a volatile and competitive job market alongside 2.8 million other ambitious graduates. Will a degree from an Ivy League university give our graduates an edge? Absolutely. But according to social­-media guru Sree Sreenivasan ’93JRN, Columbia graduates will also benefit from a vast network of alumni connections that could have enormous value for the rest of their lives.

Sreenivasan, a former faculty member of the Graduate School of Journalism who is now chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has spent more than twenty years studying and speaking about the promise of digital and social media, the power of connectivity, and the value of networking. He is still actively involved in the Columbia community, and as a self­-described “digital evangelist,” he says everyone should learn how to use social media to advance his or her career and build a professional network for the long term.

In May, as the Commencement bleachers were being assembled on Low Plaza and students were collecting phone numbers and e-­mail addresses from their classmates, Columbia Magazine asked Sreenivasan to download some of his wisdom.

Illustrations by Davide Bonazzi

You’re an expert on navigating not only the promise of social media, but its pitfalls. Do you have specific ideas on how we should use social media in our professional lives?
There are so many opportunities for us to connect with folks who can help us with our careers. It’s unfortunate that people don’t try them all, or even know about them. In my twenty years of working with both students and more established professionals, I’ve seen networking evolve. But not everyone has evolved with it. To really capitalize on the new tools and new opportunities available online, you have to understand the technology and use it — not just in your professional life but in your personal life. Basically, you have to be networking all the time. I don’t think there’s any difference between in­-person and digital networking. It’s all just networking. It may not be instinctual, but it can be taught.

What are some of the ways that social media has improved the way people network professionally?
For years, the only way to reach out to people was when you wanted something. You wouldn’t write a note to a mentor or a prospective employer just to say, “Hi. I’m thinking of you.” You had to ask for something. Now social media allows you to have what I call “low­-touch networking.” By liking a photo on Facebook, retweeting an item on Twitter, or following a company on LinkedIn, you’re not making any requests or demands. People in positions of power are always being asked for something — a job, a speech, a foreword for a book. Low­-touch networking is a very gentle way of connecting. You’re basically saying, “I notice you. You’re great.” That’s all, and that’s completely OK. Don’t wait until you need something from somebody to make a connection. I say to people, “Don’t be an ‘ask’ on social media.” There’s a k in there, but if they mishear me and don’t hear the k, that’s OK, because you don’t want to be the other thing on social media either.

Photograph by Deidre SchooSo is there a misperception that you only need to network when you're looking for a job?
Oh, yeah. The best career management is to build your networks when you don’t need them so they’re there when you do. Right now you should be using social media to show that you can be helpful, informative, relevant, credible, even entertaining. Get comfortable with LinkedIn and its etiquette, style, and language. I tell people that it’s too late to figure out LinkedIn when your company has layoffs. You’ll just come across as desperate, and desperation does not work in any social situation, whether it’s LinkedIn or JDate or eHarmony or Match.com. You don’t want to be desperate. You want to be confident — someone people want to talk to, not avoid.

Should we focus on networking with people who are in senior positions, or is that a mistake?
You should connect with people at all levels. In fact, people who are just starting out can be very helpful to you. They have access, and might be more willing to show you how to navigate a particular company or profession. At Columbia I used to tell my peers, “Be nice to your students, because you’re going to work for them one day.” You often find that the most helpful people are not the presidents of companies.

What kinds of things do people get wrong with social media?
In 2015, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t have a recent, recognizable photo of yourself on LinkedIn. Not you as a child, not you with a child, not of your child, but a recent, recognizable photo. I go to so many conferences where I meet people I know on Twitter, and they have a photo from twenty years ago, and they don’t look anything like themselves.

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