How I changed my perception of networking

Friends

Last week I was having a drink with a friend/colleague and she accused me of being good at networking. Or at least that’s how I initially felt! A networker?! Urgh, slimy! Does she mean I’m tarting myself around only being nice to those who could be “useful” to me? Networking, especially among the self-employed, has got a bit of bad name, particularly here in the UK where it seems to fit in the self-promotion category and any kind of self-promotion is looked down upon. But then I thought about it a bit more, and got her to elaborate, and realised she was actually giving me a compliment and that, scarily, she was right, it is one of my strengths.

I’ve never seen what I feel I do naturally as networking. I see it as keeping in touch with people that I like, respect and believe that we can have a mutually beneficial working relationship, as well as putting other people in touch so they can enjoy the same. It’s like having a whole new group of friends with inspiring interesting people who understand the business you’re in. Who wouldn’t want that? But like friends, I believe you are building and developing relationships among people who can help each other in professional and sometimes personal ways and that’s not to be taken lightly.

I realised that to me, that’s the key – networking is maintaining a network of people for mutual assistance, built out of mutual respect. So, fine, I’ll refer to keeping in touch with my cross-industry colleagues and friends as networking, but hope to explain it in a way that makes it feel much less slimy and much more of a solid, fun, interesting part of work.

Probably the easiest way to network, and certainly keep aware of who your network is and what they’re up to, is LinkedIn. However, there’s really nothing like personal, face-to-face meetings, even just a 15 minute catch up, to feel connected and understand where your colleagues, contacts and friends are at in their work and lives. Especially as a self-employed person, I find that just the energy and inspiration created by talking to people is immeasurable and invaluable.

1. Make the time

This is the most common excuse for not connecting with people: I don’t have the time. Would you say this about your friends or about dating? If you need to, do it systematically, decide on a number of hours or coffees or lunches you want to have per month to keep those relationships going. Use LinkedIn or make a list, but above all else, make it fun for you and for the other person – enjoy it – you’re not sitting at your desk, you’re talking about things that excite and interest you and if you’re not, then change your job!

2. Connect and engage

Many professionals tend to overestimate the important of their technical skills and while of course that’s important and a huge factor in getting work, remember that potential clients or referees are human and (usually) think like humans: whether they can trust and get on with you is of primary concern. Would you get married without meeting someone and connecting on some level? (Please don’t say yes to this one!) Successful business people, in any industry, will be there mostly because they are good at relationship building over time and across many industries, including with the media.

3. Give more than you receive

Make sure you listen for at least 50% more than you talk. If you don’t listen you won’t have any idea how you can help. When you do talk, use that time to share: ask questions and give (tailored and asked-for) advice, recommendations, contacts and praise. It’s not rocket science – it’s the basis to developing any kind of successful relationship – just remember that professional ones are no different.

Finally, remember that networking is not about getting something out of the relationship now, it’s for the long term benefit of both parties – you may not even see how you can be useful to that person or how they might be able to help you in the future, but if your relationship is based on mutual trust, respect and a healthy dose of fun and good humour, then it will bear fruit for both of you at some point along the way.

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