Networking doesn’t have to be all cheap wine, name badges and awkward sidling up. When done well, it can be both painless and hugely advantageous. Whether we like it or not, it really is who you know and if they like you; that’s what opens doors and makes things happen.
You should always start with the WHY? Really thinking about why you want to build a network and what you’re trying to achieve with it. Make a list of everything you want to do, grouping them into categories and then prioritise. Think about what kind of people might be the most useful to help you achieve each goal – who are the gatekeepers you need. Once you’ve got a clear idea about the profile of who those people might be, you can start to get really specific with a strategic approach.
Building an Organic Network
The key to networking like a boss is to start where you are and not to take for granted what you already have – it’s a solid foundation. You’re meeting people constantly, through uni, through work, through interest groups and social activities. All of these people are a part of your network. Never underestimate who you already know and the doors they can open for you now and in the future – today’s stoner can easily be tomorrow’s CEO (or American President!)
Everyone you know likely knows someone you want to know or who can help you along the way. The key next steps are to manage this group so you don’t lose anyone or become forgotten and also to put yourself strategically in places where you can start to meet more relevant people quickly and consciously grow your reach.
The easiest way to manage your current and growing contact list is to connect to everyone using Linkedin or some other form of Customer Relationship Management system (CRM) so that you can keep track of their progress and keep in touch with them wherever they go. Set yourself up with an attractive profile and start finding everyone you know and connect with them, because you just never know.
First, start looking at the easiest ways to meet these people, this is likely to be by joining a networking group. Joining a network is a quick way to unlock a large group of relevant people in a sector or job role. However to make this work you need to do your research and choose the right group for you and your goals. Once you find the right one, it’s up to you to make it work for you.
Too many people enter networks passively. They pay their money and go to the odd event and get very little out of it, not because the network isn’t high quality, but because they either don’t know what they’re trying to achieve, or they don’t think they can ask for it. If you want to hear a talk on a particular subject, from a certain speaker, or want to be connected directly to someone in the group, take the lead and speak to the organisers.
Good network organisers want to curate their offering to benefit their community, so hearing from their members can really help guide them. They may not be able to give you exactly what you want when you want it, but they’ll try to accommodate you in a relevant way. If they can’t, then maybe they aren’t the right network for you. As for matchmaking and connecting you, most good networks can easily make some intros, but it’s up to you to be memorable or turn that introduction into something meaningful.
Forming Meaningful Relationships
Any network you join or build yourself is only as good as the curator/caretaker – and that’s you! Once you’ve got a network, how you nurture and care for it affects how useful it will be. If you only pay attention to it when you need something, it won’t be as useful than if you’re constantly tending to and growing it.
If you’re keeping an eye on Linkedin you’ll be able to reach out to key contacts when relevant things happen to you or them. Strike a healthy balance between stalker and being forgotten altogether with your comms. Real reasons to get in touch work far better than contrived ones. Caring about what they do will encourage them to return the favour.
Don’t bother contacting someone if you can’t be arsed to do it well. When reaching out cold to contacts don’t just say “Hi let’s connect”, but rather find an interesting approach that would make them want to engage with you. An offer is always better than an ask. Give them a good reason to engage with you. Research those you’re reaching out to so you can be more relevant and sincere.
Approach relevant people who’ll be useful to you in the long run, not just those who can help you this minute. Take your time to build a meaningful long-term relationship so when you do make an ask, they have a vested reason to say yes. Knowing you and what you’re capable of over a longer period of time means you’ve earned their support.
Networking is not a popularity contest. Most people join a network and go straight to see who’s at the top of the name list. They’re like “I’m in, where’s Richard Branson?” A. He doesn’t want to talk to you and B. the queue is too long even if he did. Find someone lesser-known and more helpful to invest your efforts in.
Also, and this is important – The Richard Bransons of this world are probably useless to you. Look for people who are 20 paces ahead of you, not 20 miles. The big guns can’t remember what it was like to be you and the world has advanced a 1000 times since they were where you are. So, even if they can remember it wouldn’t be relevant. Those who are a year or a few years ahead of where you are at are more likely to respond to you and will have much more useful and relevant insights to share with you. This help is gold dust, plus you could be making a contact for life.
Always pay into the favour bank. I believe that to build a fruitful network that will give you what you need, you also need to give back. It’s always good to be in the advantageous position of the favour bank owing you, so don’t just look for opportunities to get help, look for ways you can help others. The universe will thank you, possibly in very surprising ways.
Lastly and most importantly, keep track of what you’re doing. Who’s who and what they said. Even if it’s on a spreadsheet, just keep a database, because if you’re doing it well your network may grow quickly and you don’t want to lose track of who said what to you, who you owe, who you made promises to and whatever else you’re up to.