Networking. /ˈnɛtwəːkɪŋ/ Noun. “The action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.”
I don’t know about you but I’ve always been told that networking is important for career progression and development. Regardless of which profession we’re following, it’s sound advice, even if, in my case, I got fed up with a succession of bosses telling me I should be out pressing the flesh much more. But if you want to be successful, you need to learn how to network, how to spend time ‘out there’ meeting new people and building contacts.
So how good at networking are you? If you’re anything like me, the answer is probably not as effective as you ought to be. But exactly how should we go about it? is there a template? No doubt there are plenty of textbooks and academic papers on the subject but without wading through endless theory and management guff, what are the basic principles we should all be following?
Most of us probably make the assumption that by chucking ourselves into it, by beavering away on various ideas, by raising our activity levels, eventually something will stick. The busier we are, we reason, the more likely the leads or the contracts will come. But although the old tale about even a blind squirrel eventually finding a nut springs to mind, it’s hardly a plan likely to deliver nailed on success, is it? Just attending conferences and networking events, or joining a local business club, or collecting and handing out industrial quantities of business cards, or building up banks of followers online, won’t guarantee the sort of business returns we imagine. It’s far too scattergun. Oh, it might feel like we’re busy, feel like we’re doing a lot. And we probably are. But are we not just being busy fools? If you start thrashing around with your arms and legs in a swimming pool you might achieve some kind of forward momentum, but there’s a good chance you may end up drowning too.
As with all of these things you need to be strategic. Throwing out random targets every now and then isn’t a strategy (hello, Matt Hancock, by the way). Targets only work as part of an overall plan. To have a successful network we need a whole range of different connections: people who provide us with information, help us achieve our goals, promote and advocate us, coach and mentor us, connect us to others. To build that sort of network, one which will help us move closer to our respective ambitions, we have to be considered. We have to do some homework. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that by going out and meeting random people that will automatically deliver important contacts to us every time. We may get lucky, of course, but that luck will likely soon dry up.
I should declare an interest here. I’m not especially good at networking. Oh sure, I understand the theory. I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m just not as good as many others in terms of actually doing it. When I set my business up seven years ago and started looking at potential clients, I found that early on those clients were actually already coming to me. They were people I’d spoken to about the idea of going out on my own and it was because several of them had expressed an interest in working with me that I actually took the plunge in the first place. It took me a while to appreciate that this isn’t networking. I wasn’t having to work at it.
Of all of the aspects of running my own business, marketing and networking are possibly my weakest suits. I don’t naturally gravitate to self-promotion, finding it somehow a little vulgar. But it’s not. Nor is it arrogant to be promoting yourself. It’s essential. If not you, then who? I soon learned that lesson. Marketing is about awareness, trying to ensure that others out there are aware of you and the services you are able to provide. It might sound somehow self-serving, but it isn’t. Some people struggle with that.
Marketing and networking are close cousins. And if you think that marketing is self-serving, or arrogant, or vulgar, how on earth are you going to feel asking for help from within your network of friends, colleagues, associates – all of the contacts you’ve been building up? The best types of network are those which operate two ways. One day you help someone else, the next it’s your turn to benefit. But people need to know how they can add value and help you, and without the marketing and networking they can have no notion of what you do, what you need, or how they can help. Much like asking Stevie Wonder to hit three triple 20s in succession on a dartboard, it is possible. It may even happen. But the chances aren’t too high.
I mentioned in a piece several weeks ago the work Matthew Syed has done on cognitive diversity, of trying to avoid surrounding yourself with people who think like you. It’s human nature to want to be dealing with folk from similar backgrounds, who share similar beliefs and reinforce our values. But these people also anchor us deep within our comfort zones. Just as this only encourages limited ideas and decisions it’s also clear that working within this type of closed network will limit our exposure to people who can offer new ideas and connections, different perspectives. Why restrict? Open your eyes and ears. Mix with people from different walks of life, be receptive to alternative ideas and opinions.
If I’ve learned one lesson in this whole area, it’s that we shouldn’t be shy in asking. Don’t wait until you have a need and then look around to find that you don’t have the support network you ought to have. Nurture the relationships now. I was pleased to have clients coming to me in the early days of the business but I should have seen that this wouldn’t necessarily last. You need to continue to build and improve your network even while the work is coming in. Because I brought in several clients at the outset, I imagined that networking was something I could afford to put off until tomorrow.
Schedule time for networking, however difficult that might be. One of the psychometric tests I carry out for owners and other business leaders as part of the work we do in building and developing senior management teams includes questions designed to establish whether a person is an extrovert or introvert thinker. One specific question asks how comfortable someone would be in a networking situation: do they automatically go to the centre of the room, or do they prefer to remain close to the walls? I’ll confess to being a ‘stick close to the walls’ kind of person. But I’ve found that it isn’t necessarily about your confidence in a given situation. If you’re at the event in the first place you’ve already taken the biggest step. Yes, you need to learn how to ‘work a room’, but other people’s curiosity will often bring them to you. You don’t have to be a flamboyant, outgoing type to be able to benefit.
You may be fortunate and receive some invitations to more ‘interesting’ networking events. Not the standard conferences, or business leader speeches; I’m talking about corporate hospitality. I was lucky enough to work in sport, and meetings and gatherings often took place with cricket and other sporting events going on in the background. It helps if the backdrop is something you enjoy. You’re more comfortable. You relax more. At Glamorgan we had debentures at Lord’s and it was my job to invite half a dozen people along to the opening day of an England Test match every year. And no. It wasn’t a job. It wasn’t arduous at all. Though there were plenty of dull conferences as well, before you start getting any ideas. It wasn’t all canapes and Pimm’s. But we had considerable success in the business we were able to generate from the various people we invited along. That they had a good day too is part of the deal. Quid pro quo.
Networking also means building your profile. How often do people tell you to keep your CV up to date? The same should be true of your online presence. Many people swear by Linked In. Others prefer alternative forms of social media. I don’t go a bundle on Facebook or Instagram personally, but even an old duffer like me understands the importance of some kind of social media presence. There is also, if you run your own company, your website. Some are very interactive, others, like mine in the main, more of the ‘landing page’ variety. Online and social media these days are others’ first experience of you (something you should also bear in mind when applying for jobs – recruiters will look there first, trust me). For many people your online presence is the gateway; if they don’t like what they see and read, or it’s hopelessly out of date, you may not get so much as a sniff of a chance to reach second base. Create the right impression.
Follow up. How may times have we met someone, shared contact information or taken a business card, and then not followed it up? How do we develop real relationships if that’s all we do? In almost all of these cases we won’t know these people and they won’t know us. And without any kind of follow-up, that’s how it’ll remain. We need to take time to get to know someone. Mutual connections can help us do that. But we should always follow up, even if it’s only a quick two- or three-line email to say how we enjoyed meeting the person and perhaps we might get together over a coffee or a beer some time further down the line. Takes no time at all. If nothing comes of it, what have you lost?
I have a working career going back 35+ years and I’ll admit it took me a good while to understand many of these things. Being honest, I still have to force myself to do some of them. We need networks in order to be able to get some of our messages across. I found the approach different with my own business than it had been before, but the principles are broadly similar. And I still have to remind myself to get off my backside, book an event, go to a function, work a room, follow up an introduction.
In terms of what strategy will work best, ask yourself what you want to achieve in the next few years. Who do you know who might be able to help you achieve that? What sort of networking will deliver that? How might what you do help to contribute to others’ positive business outcomes, in other words how are you in a position to be able to help others? This one is so important. If we appreciate that networking is as much about what we can do for others, it helps to eliminate any perception that it is arrogant self-promotion. As you meet people, ask them open-ended questions. What do they do? What are they working on? What challenges do they face? How are they overcoming them? Be interested.
In an ideal world, try to find a few champions, people who know you and would be happy to advocate what you do. That helps in the sense that you can use others to sell you and your ideas. I have come across many good networkers and I pick their brains when I can. One of them – a gentleman called Andrew Walker, who I worked with at Glamorgan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and who you’ll find on Linked In – is an absolute master (he and I form the back row of the photo above: he’s the one who has the good sense not to have his mouth wide open). I don’t think there can be many better-connected people anywhere in South Wales. He’s always out and about, attending events and meeting people, building on what is already an impressively extensive contact list. He’s a mate. But when I bump into him half a dozen times a year he never fails to ask what I’m up to, always lets me know how things are in his world, and reminds me that he is around if ever I need any help, or points me in the direction of others. You can be sure he’ll be doing the same with absolutely everyone else he meets. That’s how you do it. And even at my age I can still learn from the best.