When we talk about building your network, it’s really about building a community of support. It isn’t about working the room, schmoozing, or collecting business cards. In fact, it doesn’t even have to take place at a big cocktail party or conference.
One of my coaching clients wanted to work on two issues on our most recent call:
- Relationship building, which he defined as “value added conversations that build relationships with the appropriate people internally as well as externally”, and
- Networking, which he thought of as “working the room and schmoozing” and considered to be “a four-letter word for those of us who are introverts”.
This surprised me because, in my book, networking is about relationship building. And while some of us are great at “working the room” and even “schmoozing”, it’s not a prerequisite for success.
Why networking matters
These days, having a network of contacts, connections and people to partner with is more important than ever. With greater ease of access to information, it’s our relationships that help us differentiate ourselves. In fact, without a good network, nowadays it’s hard to find a job, do that job well, and position ourselves to advance to the next level.
There are at least four key benefits to building your network of supporters. Having this kind of community helps you:
- Do your existing job better – by having access to and learning from other people’s experiences; by discovering better ways to do things.
- Attract future opportunities – by being more visible to others, and having greater visibility on what’s going on outside your own area; this is where people come across great leads and get those “lucky breaks”.
- Prevent costly mistakes – by having experienced people who you can bounce ideas around with and consult before you make that big decision, pass up a golden opportunity, or take that irrevocable action.
- Create a career safety net – by having access to a diverse set of relationships and connections, which is the primary source for finding new jobs and creating your platform for success these days.
When you build your community and broaden your network, you gain access to a new well of knowledge, experience and contacts. And each of those people in your community has their own network that becomes your extended network, which you can access and activate as needed. And it’s reciprocal, so you’re also offering your network the same benefits.
How to go about networking
For many people, the whole idea of networking feels icky and overwhelming. Plus, who has spare time to devote to something that doesn’t have a clear payoff in the near term?
Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’re not alone. But that doesn’t make it right!
Since I want you to enjoy every bit of the personal and professional success that you desire, and doing some networking is key to that success, I’m going to share with you 10 strategies to be more successful at networking.
1. Frame networking in a positive way
You’ll have the most success if you think about it as building a community of support. I know that when I think of an activity as something to dread, I put it off or do it badly, which makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I treat it as an experiment, look at the benefits I’m going to get, or remind myself of the pain I will avoid, then it all becomes more easeful.
2. Recognize that networking is an investment
It’s like building the foundation for your house. You’re building relationships that are the foundation for your career. It’s an investment that may yield returns over a longer period, and maybe even through another part of the network.
The good thing is, these relationships are a portable asset that travels with you no matter where you go. That portability means it’s never a wasted effort, and also serves as a useful reminder to avoid taking a transactional approach, such as expecting immediate, on-the-spot results.
3. Be clear about your purpose
Reminding yourself of why you’re building this community will help you to take action, and to take actions that make sense.
For example, your “why” will guide the kinds of invitations you accept and the people you choose to approach given your limited time. And every once in a while, say yes to something you normally wouldn’t say yes to. That keeps things fresh while also testing whether your criteria are still appropriate.
So what is your purpose? Is it about building your network for the job you’re in? To be in the flow of future opportunities? To learn and gain knowledge in a particular area or aspect? To find business partners?
All of these are valid goals, and you can have more than one. The important thing is to identify what those goals are so that you can be open to the opportunities that come your way.
4. Do it your own way
If big events aren’t your thing, don’t sweat it. You can choose to network in one-on-one mode or in small groups instead. Nobody said you have to go to the massive “meat market” events. Invite someone for a coffee, form a running group, come up with the settings that work best for you.
For my introverted client, his solution is to start setting up more targeted coffees, whether one-to-one or in a small group, and to attend only the absolutely necessary big events. And when he wants to broaden his circle, he’ll ask for advice on whether there’s anyone else he should be talking to on the subject.
5. Show up and set a goal
When you find that you have to be in a large group setting and attend that gala dinner, then set a goal and let yourself off the hook once you achieve it.
For example, if you’re shy, you could set the goal of talking to someone within 30 seconds of entering the room, which will break the ice. Or decide that you will introduce yourself to 3 people and find out something intriguing about them. Who knows, you might even end up enjoying it and outperforming your own expectations!
6. Team up
Another strategy when you’re uncomfortable going it alone at a big reception is to agree to go with someone else. I learned this from a friend and fellow coach, Andrew.
Andrew discovered that if he approached a group of people on his own, they were unlikely to let him into the conversation. But if he was with another person, then both would be welcomed into the group. Perhaps this has to do with the concept of “social proof” – that if you’re in a pair, then at least someone finds you acceptable. In any case, we teamed up that evening and it worked like a charm.
7. Network from wherever you are
Sometimes it doesn’t take extra time from your day to network if you’re sitting next to someone in a conference, on a flight, at a neighbor’s barbecue, or at the school play. When you see someone new or someone who you would like to get to know in your normal course of life, start a conversation. Introduce yourself. Be interested in learning about them.
For example, when I was at a basketball tournament at my daughter’s school, I started chatting with other parents and discovered that not only were they great people, in a few cases, we became helpful business connections.
Make use of your daily travels to build your network – there’s the added benefit of being easy to keep in contact if you find there’s a potential connection.
8. Come up with a set of stock phrases
When you have a set of ways to open a conversation, and also to answer the question “what do you do?” or “tell me about yourself”, it can be less daunting to participate actively in larger settings. In fact, you can use them as an opportunity to try out different ways to talk about what you do, and see how it “lands” with people.
For example, my client also set himself the task of coming up with a list of different descriptors for what he does. He referred to them as “little elevator speeches” that he can use when he goes to networking events.
9. Give first
Once you get beyond the first meeting, and if you decide it’s worth keeping in touch, then be willing to give before you take. I like to follow up with a note and an article or some other thoughtful offer that builds on what we talked about.
For example, if we’ve spoken about a common interest in leadership, I might send my favorite article as a follow up, or make them aware of an interesting program on the subject. Or better yet, find a way to help them achieve their goals by making an introduction to someone else who can help them.
10. But then, do ask
Building your community is a two-way street. By making an ask now and then, it can strengthen the relationship. Plus, that way, both sides can feel they’ve contributed.
For example, some of my mentees have expressed concern that they are getting all the value without contributing, and always feel better when I ask them for some insights on what their fellow Millennials are thinking.
Start small, start now
So, those are 10 ways to get going and keep going on building your network. But don’t feel like you have to “overachieve” and use all 10 strategies – just pick a couple that appeal to you and put them into action.
The important thing is to get going, and keep going. It’s better to start small and keep it up rather than go in bursts that you can’t maintain.
In the end, networking to build your community is all about building relationships. To borrow from the real estate saying, it’s “relationship, relationship, relationship”.
A recent example in my own life is related to my forthcoming book, Accelerate: 9 Capabilities to Achieve Success at Any Career Stage.
When it came time to reach out to people and ask them to write blurbs (that’s what the publishing industry calls the quotes that famous people write for authors on the back cover), I was thrilled to get a “yes” from Herminia Ibarra, professor at INSEAD, and author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. She’s a rock star in the leadership and management field, #8 on the Thinkers50 list, and an extremely busy person.
So, why did she say “yes”? While I haven’t asked her the question, I’m pretty sure it comes back to relationship, community and trust. The kind that develops over the decade or more that we’ve known each other, even though we’ve only met up a handful of times during that period.
You, too, can build those kinds of relationships. You just have to start, and then find simple ways to keep in touch.
So let me ask you this:
What stands in the way of your building your network?
Leave a comment below. As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem solved.