The Business Link website defines business networking as being about connecting with other people in order to share information, resources and leads. It adds that the emphasis is on relationship building – getting to know people, finding out how you can help them and what they can do for you. Not a bad definition to be honest. The Americans do this so much better than we Brits & Irish – they just aren’t as shy as we are & they’re blessed with oodles of self confidence from an early age that we just don’t seem to have. The picture above is the Learning Pool team welcoming guests to our conference last year. I love this picture because everyone’s engaged in animated conversations and there’s a tangible air of busyness.
There’s no doubt that a sizeable and varied network is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. The act of building your own network is a lot of fun, good (and sometimes quirky) things can happen along the way and you get to meet loads of great new people. But it’s an investment that takes a lot of time & effort, especially in the early days when you’re just starting out and don’t know many people. The end result however is valuable and well worthwhile and should result in you having a variety of people you can go to for:
· business advice, maybe specialist advice about new product development or a new market, or just a general sounding board;
· career advice, perhaps you feel as if you’re losing your way with your progress or just need a one off discussion with someone about a specific job offer;
· introductions to all manner of people and organisations;
· sales introductions and potential leads.
So – how should you get started with networking. The first thing to note is how much easier this is with the arrival of Twitter, LinkedIn & Facebook. Gone are the days of showing up at a conference or event with a delegate list & praying you may catch sight of the name badge on a person you want to talk to. Social networking is a great leveller as well – I treat everyone the same on Twitter as I usually have no idea of their status – and it’s also good news for people that are very shy. Other ways to get started are to comment on other people’s blogs, volunteer in your local community, use your professional body if you have one, use work related groups that you may be part of, join your local chamber of commerce or junior chamber, get involved in a political party if that’s your bag. You should also have a long, hard think about everyone you already know and you should remember that building a network is something that is additional to being at work – a lot of this needs to happen in your own free time.
Like most things in life there are a few cardinal sins – these are the main ones in my book:
· not following up on an introduction that someone has made for you;
· collecting people for the sake of it and not really having any interest in them or what they do (those serial networkers with hundreds of LinkedIn contacts with people they’ve never met);
· only collecting people that are “useful” to you right now – this is shortsighted (you never know what’s around the next corner) and it’s also mean;
· mixing up networking & selling – never, ever pitch to a new introduction unless you’ve been specifically invited to.
Some people are phenomenal networkers and if you know someone like this & treat them well, with a bit of luck and a lot of grace they may one day gradually introduce you to their own networks and accelerate your progress. These are people I know who are legendary networkers – Twitter names in brackets – Ellie Stoneley (@E11ie5) Matt Johnston (@cimota) Dave Briggs (@davebriggs) Bill McCluggage (@BillMcCluggage) Michelle Gallen (@michellegallen) Shirley Ayres (@ShirleyAyres) Lyra McKee (@lyramckee) Bill Liao (@liaonet).
Some hints and tips – there are more of these on Dave Briggs’ excellent & related blog “The networked public servant” which you can read at this link http://davepress.net/
· Remember karma – what goes around does come around – this is a two way street where you have to be as generous with your time and introductions as others have been for you;
· Be brave – what’s the worst that can happen – someone doesn’t want to speak to you or connect with you;
· Make a conscious effort to speak to people you don’t know – don’t take the easy option and hang out with your friends the whole time at events;
· Be courteous and a little bit persistent when making contact with new people; don’t be afraid to approach people speaking at conferences for a quick chat – most people are approachable and it’s part of human nature to want to help others;
· Take time to get to know people and talk to them properly when you meet them, chat until you find commonality, don’t be rushing on to the next person on your list, remember why you have two ears and one mouth.
As always I’ll leave you with a story. We were at an awards dinner a couple of years ago with our own senior team. It was one of those occasions where none of us really knew anyone – but the room was full of investors, politicians and general big wigs – people whose radar we wanted to get onto. Ok guys – we said – network! – let’s go. My business partner’s wife, who was also there, tells how fear passed fleetingly across their faces but when I looked around the room 5 minutes later – every one of them was chatting away to someone different and my heart swelled with pride – again!
Welcome your comments, stories and tips for others on this important topic.
Photograph courtesy of Anna Karas – thanks Anna!