Networking. Recently gave a talk on the topic of networking. It’s a vast topic that we universally agree is important, yet few of us really excel at. Books and books have been written on the topic, but here is my take:
Your heart has to be the right place. There are lots of flaky, selfish, and transactional people in the world. No barb against them personally, but it’s true. We are all wired to be somewhat selfish, and this is the antithesis of networking.
Think win-win. Think about it from their shoes. If you are a MBA student calling an alum, how can you make it a good experience for them? Useful, pleasant, and hopefully not-painful? Ask yourself, would this alum take my call next time? Were you informed and respectful? Were you a jerk? How can you help them – if not now, in the future.
This Venn diagram by Jessica Hagy summarizes this point perfectly.
Give before you get. Finding, building, and cultivating of community (or as Seth Godin calls it a “tribe”) of like-minded people, starts with finding ways to give first. Give your time, your advice, your referral, your honest feedback, or even your consulting templates and tools. The absolutely WORST time to start networking is when you are unemployed and desperately looking for a job. That is called begging, not networking.
Be interesting. This seems obvious, but a lot of the MBAs I spoke to were a bit frozen when this topic came up. How to break the ice? Especially at a cocktail party or a place where the conversation is serendipitous and probably 4-5 minutes long. Creating a connection means finding common ground, something you both care about. Read and stay current on relevant news: industry changes, company earnings announcements, interesting articles from the Economist. Stand out from the crowd. Talk about something other than the weather!
Networking is just the beginning. Think of it as the first inning in a 7-game series in baseball. Although this is the most talked-about part of the process, it is not the goal. Creating a meaningful relationship is the goal. It doesn’t mean that you will talk with them once a month, or even once a year. It does mean that they find you trustworthy, competent and a useful person to stay in touch with. Will they pick up the phone when you call? As Seth Godin puts it, “Who trusts you?”
Keeping a genuine business relationship for 10-15 years is the truly hard part. It’s easy to forget people. It’s easy to just call on people when you need them. This is the tragedy because the real benefits of effective networking / relationship building come many years after the initial connection.
Start now: If meaningful business relationships are about the long-game, then you need to be patient. As Keith Ferrazi, author of Never Eat Alone (affiliate link) and ex-CMO of Deloitte says, “Don’t keep score.” This also means that you need to start planting the seeds of the relationship now. As they say, the best time plant a tree was 20 years ago. The 2nd best time is now.
Confession: I am not the best at networking. Sometimes it is a bit of a hassle, and frankly, not all people are that interesting. Have been to several “mixers” where you meet a half dozen people, and they only talk about themselves. Amazingly low EQ.
Success story: I once worked for a partner (pseudonym Bill) who had a very good relationship with the client. Later, I found out that Bill and the client met 15+ years earlier when Bill was just a consultant. As the client progressed in his career, and moved jobs, he always hired Bill. It was win-win. Bill did great work for the client, the client looked great, got promoted, hired Bill again. A consulting Cinderella story.