Networking can feel risky. You’re putting yourself out there, inviting people to get to know you. Building and maintaining relationships takes a little dexterity and persistence, you have to keep things spinning by injecting a little energy every now and then, a bit like spinning plates. Eventually, by building an active network, you’ll develop a useful asset that can potentially benefit your career.
Networking, the art of building relationships, is underpinned by a sincere interest in people. Motive is important. As with many professional skills, networking only works if you’re prepared to commit to it, for the right reasons. Regarding people only as rungs in a ladder is counterproductive. You might succeed in climbing up to the next job but beware of the reputation trailing behind you.
A healthy approach to developing your network, whether within your company or beyond, may well help land you a promotion. It can also widen your knowledge, make you more ‘plugged in’ within your industry and bring more opportunities inside and outside your business. Our eLearning Learnflix course on Networking Skills explains more in detail, but the following two-step process is a good way to begin.
Step 1: Reframing
“Hell is other people”, suggested the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps shortly after a networking event. It can be hard to win over people you don’t know. It’s tricky to start and it takes time to accomplish. Finding the right thing to say can be awkward, there can be moments when you need to speak without having anything to say. And at any moment during the process, the other person might suddenly become attracted to the nibbles on the far side of the room.
Talking to people whom you don’t know well, or at all, need not be a white-knuckle ride. By reframing networking, and regarding it as no more than an exercise in storytelling, it becomes an easier prospect. Your stories can be inspired by the things you do well, the knowledge you have, the expertise you’ve developed. Of course, other people have stories too. Networking isn’t about setting yourself up to be judged. Reframe it as an opportunity to swap valid information with someone you value.
Step 2: Technique
In starting a conversation, it helps to be prepared. Before meeting someone new, do your homework. Look into the other person’s background, find discussion topics that will help you start a conversation. Try to discover where their thinking is at the moment. What big projects have they recently been involved with? What are they currently working on? You don’t need to know every last detail of what they’re involved in, you just need to know enough to hold their attention with a couple of well-informed questions.
From there, you can steer things towards more familiar or comfortable ground, which is an important part of networking. Speaking with ease, knowledge and direction shows that you are a person who is relaxed, knowledgeable and forward-thinking.
Keep things going over time
Remember that you’re offering the other person a mutually beneficial conversation, not just a shop window on your personal brand. Try to find subjects of conversation that you’re both interested in. Present your position but be sure to listen to theirs. It’s especially important to listen to – and remember – basic details, starting with their name and their company. Afterwards, remember to follow up; a brief ‘thank you, nice to meet you’ is always well regarded, largely because it’s rare. Standing out as an exception makes you memorable.
Try ‘network mapping’ which involves taking a close look at who is in your circle of influence and where the gaps are. Is there a senior person or thought leader in your organisation who you want to get to know? Try speaking to someone in your network who may work with the people you want to meet. Could they introduce you? You’ll be surprised by how many people have the right connections.
Above all, remain true to yourself – connect with people you value and show that you respect them. This will help to build rapport and preserve the relationship over time, which is ultimately the goal. It’s important to stay in touch and keep the plates spinning. By keeping energy in the relationship, you’ll be able to leverage it when you need to and reap the dividend of your hard work.