“More business decisions occur over lunch and dinner than at any other time, yet no MBA courses are given on the subject.” – Peter Drucker
Successful people in business have always known the importance of networking. If you are not completely familiar with this concept, observe dialogues between successful millionaires, billionaires or entrepreneurs (it’s not difficult to find them these days, most are celebrities and they are on TV all the time). Observe that rather than being alone they will normally have an entourage in some form or another and when faced with a problem they may talk of ‘their guy in the (xyz) industry’ who could help. Successful people usually have pretty good networks.
People often talk about being in the right place at the right time. This is also something which bizarrely enough tends to happen more often when you’re networking.
Networking should be the easiest and most natural thing in the world. It should be easy. Unfortunately it isn’t always and many people do it very badly. You’ve probably seen it yourself. Annoying people who actively network just become more annoying – sales people who bother you whilst you’re trying to eat your supper or even people bombarding you on those social networking sites with strange requests – maybe you don’t like it. So networking, like anything, can be done effectively or not – and as the tools for networking make it easier for everybody, so the art of networking is clouded by the masses.
Networking is no longer something only a relatively small section of the population understands, it’s now much bigger – but as important as ever. In fact, effective networking is more important than ever. Because it’s understood by more people, it’s expected by more people, and therefore networking is also more likely to be explicitly mentioned as a skill you’re expected to have in your job.
So what exactly is ‘networking’?
Well it’s pretty simple really. Most of us do it every day. Just talking to people is networking – getting out and socializing, meeting new people and expanding your social groups is networking. Going out for a walk with the dog and chatting with other dog owners is networking. As is going to a business seminar and handing out your business card to as many people as possible.
Some cultures dictate different norms on the subject of networking. For example, handing out business cards in a business environment in Tokyo in a large Japanese Corporate bank’s boardroom is a different prospect to handing out business cards at a Charity Fund-raising event in a community hall in Rio de-Janeiro. Yet both are perfectly valid business networking opportunities – handing out business cards can be the best or the worst idea depending upon how it’s done, where it’s done, why it’s done and by whom it’s done.
In most cases, so long as you are respectful of your environment and culture, networking in a relaxed manner, without being ‘pushy’ is the way to go.
Networking in sales
Any half decent salesperson will know that networking is extremely important and maintaining a good network of contacts is just as important as the ‘act’ of networking. The network can do a salespersons work for them via referrals, leads and just the circulation of general information which supports the sales activity in question. We’re going to cover sales in more detail in another article shortly and will look more there into the importance of networking in sales.
The rest of us
What about if you’re not a salesperson, nor a consultant of any kind, but just a ‘regular’ employee? Is networking still important? The answer is YES. Networking can get you the career move to a different more interesting area you didn’t even know existed, let alone finding out it was something you were even better at than your current job and would enjoy more. It can get you invited to social events that you didn’t know about (“I didn’t know that the bank had a golfing association”), it can get you extra plaudits, testimonials and referrals which will impress your manager and it can get you contacts which may not be useful right away but will save you a great deal of time and energy at some point in the future when you find out that their knowledge and skills help you to perform a certain task in 5 minutes instead of 2 days.
How to network effectively?
Firstly, be yourself. Relax. There’s nothing complicated about it. Just talk to people and be open when people talk to you. But don’t push it. Don’t pester people. Whilst it’s normally OK to openly declare that you are doing a bit of networking, don’t do it and say it all the time or you will become annoying and people will start ignoring you. That’s right – it will have the exact opposite effect of what you’re aiming for. So, don’t be that person who people talk about when you’re not around. Just be yourself and allow people to take you or leave you as you are. The more relaxed, positive and comfortable you are, the more people will want to talk to you (i.e. network with you) anyway. Also – be open to others ‘networking’ with you. Again, if they are pestering you or you don’t like the way they are ‘networking’ then it doesn’t mean you have to encourage that, but just be open. Recognise when someone is networking with you and be ready to take the opportunities that come your way. Get out of your head that people are ‘using’ you or that you don’t want to ‘give’ away more knowledge or information than you receive. Networking requires openness and usually doesn’t cost you anything. I say usually because it does take time, so networking should ideally be something that fits in with your usual activities rather than something you have to make time for (I’m not an advocate of spending hours on social networking internet sites perfecting your profile and connecting to every single contact that you can – though these sites can be useful tools which have their place, in my view most people abuse them or their own time rather than using them effectively).
If this all sounds a little over the top or artificial, it’s not. Networking needs to be natural to be effective and that’s the key point here. Like anything if you try too hard, then it will show and probably work the other way. Just be open to the idea, be where you want to be in terms of the people you associate with and the events you attend and the rest will come with experience and practice.
Looking after your network
So now we’ve talked about networking, how to network, good and bad networking, let’s have a brief look at the network as an organism. You need to realize that you have a network, and have an idea what it looks like. You do already have a network, whether this concept is new to you or not. Your network may only be your immediate family if you’re something of a hermit, but you still have one and this network can suffer, stagnate, grow or shrink, depending upon what you do with it. It can be vibrant or static, prosperous or dormant, depending upon how you and others in the network behave and influence each other.
You should be keeping track of your network one way or another. Maybe not all in one place, maybe you have a number of contact databases (your address book, your mobile phone, your email client, your social networking site profiles, paper records, your head, your wife’s or mother’s records, your rolodex, your collection of business cards…). It’s useful to have records of your contacts and use these records to ensure that you don’t lose touch with people, that you ‘nurture’ your network to keep key relationships from stagnating and that you shape your network to be the way you want it. In fact, if you do look at your network in this way from time to time, comparing perhaps who you know, what they know, who they know etc. that in itself can be a very powerful exercise. Again, this doesn’t have to be an arduous task or too artificial – don’t build a massive, complex spreadsheet with every last person you know on the planet and every minute detail about every one of them if you are not prepared to keep it up to date – it will just become a lot of misinformation – maybe just use the systems you already have in place but either choose one (or two) and consolidate the information into that one (or two) and focus on keeping this data up to date.
Networking is quite simply about making connections. This can be done in a very deliberate way where a kind of picture is built up behind the scenes to lead you to a target audience or it can be done in a casual way where new connections are made all the time just because you are open to the possibilities of meeting new people and opportunities, as in the countless examples I could give you of casual conversations I’ve had which have turned into business opportunities.
There is also a question of balance. You need to be somewhere between the shrinking violet who doesn’t talk to anyone new and the pushy imposter who outstays their welcome. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of space between these two extremes, and the chances are that’s already your natural state.
There is an old saying: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” – and it’s true. Networking is extremely important. More than ever before – and increasingly expected as more and more people understand its importance. To be an effective networker is about being open, being natural, knowing what a network is and how to use it, and then nurturing and growing your network.