“Networking has become a buzz word”, Lin McDevitt Pugh, tells me. And yet we all know there is nothing new about it. As Lin describes in her book, “So you think you can’t network”, our entire society could never exist if our ancestors had not been excellent networkers. Can you imagine the amount of contacts and excellent negotiation skills that transporting spices 7000km along the Silk Road would have required?
What Networking is not
The word networking, considered dirty by some, always seems to conjure up images of sleazy champagne parties and salty edibles. Lin astutely defines a network as “a sustainable exchange between individuals, organizations and groups”, with the emphasis on sustained interactions. The process of networking is what we do to nurture and grow those interactions.
Which means that the very idea of just hanging around pitching your business or looking aimlessly for clients at the chamber of commerce fancy cocktail is really just a waste of time. It is not about learning how to “work” the room or obtusely converting social conversations into business pitches at every opportunity.
What Networking really is
It’s actually not about numbers at all, even less about collecting contacts (read collecting business cards at a champagne cocktail), it’s about building long term relationships. Thinking first about what you can bring people and how you can enrich your community will put you in the right frame of mind. When was the last time you spontaneously asked someone, “how can I help you?” Or “who would you like to meet from my network?”
“Most people live very transactional lives not realizing how rich their current network is, completely missing the richness of accessing 2nd and 3rd circles of connections,”, eloquently expressed Mike Klein, an experienced Internal Communicator and founder of Changing the Terms.
Lin defines Networking “as an applied philosophy, rather than a set of skills, like organized generosity”, she says. “Sharing your connections with people who can do great things with them. It’s also a generous way of growing your own power and influence in a community. It involves sharing your own needs with people who, in turn, can help you.
Seven secrets to networking
You will be relieved to know that we are all networking every single day of our lives, but like any discipline, we can constantly improve our skills. So, how do you do it?
- Generosity. Open your heart: be generous. Ask people spontaneously what they need. More importantly ask them who they need to meet. Be willing to openly share your own needs and allow others to generously fulfill them.
- Authenticity. Asking how to network is like asking how to make friends. Once you have understood the mindset and the basic principles of contribution, sharing and generosity, just BE YOU. Do it your way. Test different approaches and see what works for you. Trial and error. There are as many ways to network as there are humans on earth, as long as you are honest and earnest and it comes from the heart.
- Contribution Enjoy helping and being helped – we are strong when we realize we are stronger together. Take every opportunity to contribute to your wider community. The world needs your skills.
Mike Klein wittily told me that most ‘People network out of desperation instead of contribution’. Don’t wait for someone to ask for help, jump at the opportunity to assist.
- Be inclusive. We must unlearn the notion that we have to complete our tasks alone. Independence doesn’t mean isolation. Everyone loves to be asked for advice. We all need to be needed. Involve your colleagues and friends in your journey and your challenges and share your failures and successes.
- Connecting people: Be the go between – connect and then remove yourself from the equation and watch what happens. Be proactive in helping and connecting others. I try to connect at least 2 people every single day.This is your unique opportunity to “alter the predictable course of human events”, as Mike so accurately reminded me. “People have married, found their business partners and enormous business contracts have been signed simply because one day I decided to connect two people, who would otherwise never have met!”Mike calls this social philanthropy. Take a leaf out of his book and join his transformational networking game. Alternatively just start connecting people and see what happens. Sometimes the less they have in common, the better it can be.
- Volunteering. Join cultural or sporting clubs, professional associations (like IABC) or partake in charity work. Get elected to a school board or find some way to invest in your local community. Look to connect with people who are outside of your immediate circle of friends and who work in a different function and field. Ask yourself how many scientists, artists, athletes and politicians you know personally. There is nothing like working and playing with people (especially if they’re outside of your normal network) to build lasting relationships.
- Appreciation. People are helping us all every step of the way. Be grateful for their support and be sure to thank them for all they do. How about sending a Happy New Year’s note to 15 people who helped you last year, telling them why you appreciated their support. They would love it.
The Pitfalls of Networking – commonly made errors
Whilst researching this article, I asked Mike and Lin the most commonly made errors they witnessed. Lin observed that many people, particularly women, try to provide solutions themselves, to the person asking for help, instead of looking to connect that person with someone else, where the true value of networks lie. She also mentioned that many treat networking as an “extra” on a Friday afternoon, in front of the coffee machine, instead of involving people into every part of their life and adopting networking to achieve what is most important to them. Mike noticed that many fail to nourish their network, instead practicing “seasonal networking, dipping in and out like they were going to the grocery store”,
The future of networking
Will the collaborative economy change the way we network? I believe that the fundamental concepts behind networking will always stay the same. However, Andrew Hennigan, author of Payforward Networking, has observed that there is a rise in collaborative action based networking such as Start-Up weekends and Hackathons. He advocates this opportunity for participants to “show the group how they behave and act in a work environment”. Another friend of mine integrates hackathons into coaching programmes to enable her clients to promote internal networking between colleagues to enhance collaboration and foster innovation. Social media is a highly prized networking tool, provided you do actually know the people in your network, as it will never replace the fundamental connective skills that Lin advocated should actually be taught in schools!
If you want to learn more about transformational networking, participate in Mike and Lin’s workshop in London in March at IABC EMENA’s annual conference, EuroComm.
Author: Kasha Dougall, Corporate Communicator & IABC EMENA Board Member. Follow her via @kashadougall