Networking and Socializing for African-Americans in Corporate America

While lots of definitions exist, networking is best described as “the act of making contact and exchanging information with other people, groups and institutions to develop mutually beneficial relationships.”  Socializing is best defined as “to talk to and do things with other people in a friendly way.”

If you are paying attention, you will notice that you socialize while networking, but you don’t network while socializing.

The reason you don’t network while socializing is: 1) just because you are being friendly doesn’t mean you are exchanging information; and 2) interactions during socializing are rarely mutually beneficial.

Unfortunately, professional African-Americans, young and old, regularly get these two concepts confused and think just because they have socialized with their boss, boss’s boss or someone from another organization, they’ve actually established a beneficial relationship. If you’re one of these people brace yourself: Here comes the cold water.

Eight times out of 10 when leadership attends a happy hour or a company-sponsored “networking event,” they are not there to network. It’s more of a campaign stop. They are there to make the “little people” –anyone who isn’t a director level or higher– believe the company actually cares.

The odds for networking go from bad to worse when someone “experienced” (i.e., been around a long time but doesn’t have a director or higher title) attends one of these events, as 9 out of 10 times those folks are usually looking to exploit naiveté and make themselves feel more influential than they really are.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “What’s this guy talking about? Everybody knows nowadays it’s not what you know, it’s who you know! So what does it matter if it’s socializing or networking? All that matters is getting to know the right people.”

Well, as one of my NYC clients used to say, “Good luck with that.”

The reality is when it comes to networking, it’s more important for people to know you versus you knowing people.  Heavy D. told us this back in ’89, “Don’t clock anybody, let’ em all clock you…Don’t be down with anybody, let ’em all be down with you.”

Why, you ask?

The answer is simple but it requires an acknowledgement of the fundamental motivational differences between networking and socializing. This is why your typical Caucasian professional can get professional benefits through socializing, while the typical African-American cannot, reinforcing that when it comes to corporate life, all people are not created equally.

So let’s get something clear upfront before we go any further, the primary source of motivation driving the average person to network or socialize is usually self-serving. So since the source is generally the same, what separates networking and socializing is in the desired result or objective.

When someone is talking to someone at a “networking event,” they are really thinking, “What can you do for me?”  But at a “socializing event,” they think, “I want you to like me, so you can do things for me.”

It’s this nuanced difference that makes all the difference for African-Americans, which is why the most skilled networkers in the Black community are often individuals who are the most adept at their given craft, for example, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, music industry and business titan Russell Simmons, comedian Dick Gregory, and businessman Robert Johnson of BET network fame.

What these individuals all have in common is that they rarely asked anyone to do anything for them professionally via socializing, but instead they demonstrated their value to prospective contacts through tangible action or results.

For example, Simmons established the first endorsement deal of a mainstream product (Adidas) by a hip- hop group- Run-D.M.C. He accomplished it not by pandering or asking the Adidas leadership to like them. No, Russell invited one of the Adidas senior leaders to a concert at Madison Square Garden and during a performance of My Adidas, Run-D.M.C  asked everyone in the crowd hold up their Adidas.

Simmons (one of us) demonstrated to Adidas (a bunch of them) what influence he held over a considerable market segment — young hip-hop fans with money to buy expensive sneakers–  through a single song; granted it was a hit song, but you get the point.

With one action,  Simmons forced the Adidas executive to “clock him,” and in the process established the first network connection — i.e. mutually beneficial relationship — between mainstream corporate America and the hip-hop community.

So the next time you find yourself invited to a networking event, ask yourself two key questions: 1) Do you have anything of tangible value to offer to someone? 2) Do you know the fair market value of your tangible assets?

If your answer to either of these questions is no, then take heed to the words of Heavy D: “Stay self-managed, self-kept, self-taught…Be your own [person], don’t be borrowed, don’t be bought.”

My advice would be to skip the event and focus that time and energy on refining your skills or craft, and defining your value so the next time a networking opportunity comes around, “You can start with a pow and end it with a bang,”  because you must never forget, “You got your own thang.”

Tre Green is a 25yr veteran of the IT industry who specializes in solving “mission impossible” for Fortune 500 organizations. When not adding to his frequent flier miles and preferred guest status, Tre can be often be found at home relaxing with his motley crew of pets.