The Art of Networking

October 30, 2013

Networking is a special form of communication aimed at developing a network of people with a stake in your life and career. Having a strong network is critical to your professional development but you cannot approach this in a selfish way – as with every stakeholder relationship, there needs to be a two way advantage, the only difference is rather then seeking mutually advantageous business or project outcomes, you are looking to your network to help you become more successful. This is achieved by developing a well-rounded network.

Some of the important people to have in a well rounded network include:

Your Mentor: This is the person who has reached the level of success you aspire to have. You can learn from their success as well as their mistakes. Heed their wisdom and experience. Mentors help you discover your solutions to your challenges.

Your Coach: The coach is someone who sets you goals, targets and challenges (think ‘sports coach’). They help with critical decisions and transitions and offer an objective perspective with no strings attached.

Your Industry Insider: This is someone in your chosen field who has expert-level information and who keeps you informed of what’s happening.

A Trendsetter: This is someone outside of your chosen industry who always has the latest buzz on any topic that you find interesting. The goal in having this person in your network is to look for those connections that spark innovation via the unconventional. It will also help you keep your conversations interesting.

Your Connector: This is a person who has access to a vast array of people, resources and information. As soon as they come across something related to you, they send you an e-mail or picking up the phone. Connectors are great at uncovering unique ways to make connections, find opportunities that otherwise would be overlooked.

An Idealist: This is the person in your network you can dream with and brainstorm ways to make the dream come true. Without judgment, they are focused on helping you achieve the impossible.

A Realist: On the flip side, you still need the person who will help you keep it real and challenge you to actually make your dream happen.

The Visionary: Visionary people inspire you by their journey. One personal encounter with this type of person can powerfully change the direction of your thinking and life.

Your Partner: You need to have someone who is in a similar place and on a similar path to share with. This is a person you can share the wins and losses with. Partners will also share resources, opportunities and information.

Your mentee: This is someone you can serve as mentor to. Someone you can help shape and guide based on your experiences.

Building a diverse network that includes people from different industries, backgrounds, age groups, ethnic groups, etc. … that fit into the roles listed above is far more empowering than building a deep network that only includes people from your current profession, limiting potential opportunities.

Achieving a dynamic network requires you to find the right people connect with and through the connections develop a robust relationship.  The balance of this rather long post will look at these two aspects in turn.

Meeting people, or at least being in a room with a lot of other people is fairly easy to achieve, there are professional associations, conferences and a range of other events you can attend, the only real challenge is creating time and picking up the courage to go out and meet people face-to-face.

Unfortunately, virtual networking is only a pale substitute; certainly networking tools such as LinkedIn and others have users that number in the millions, allow professionals to expand their networks to numbers never before possible, and help you connect with colleagues past, present and future from around the world these are largely ‘shallow’ connections. In-person networking, where connections are more personal, builds relationships that are stronger and creates impressions longer lasting. Virtual networking can certainly help feed into personal networking but then you need to make those connections and impressions that count.

The next time you attend a networking event and start a conversation with a stranger (or a virtual contact) you need to be an effective communicator and develop rapport.  These ideas will help:

Never pass up an opportunity to connect. Sometimes even a seemingly random relationship leads to a big payoff.

Make connections from the executive suite on down. Seek contacts are at all levels in a hierarchy and take the time to talk about their hobbies and interests, even at work!

Be prepared. Have a standard set of questions that you can use to begin a discussion; not only will you be ready to approach someone; you won’t do all the talking. The fastest way to build new relationships is to inquire about the other person’s work, and then ask about their biggest challenges or successes. For more on questions see: Active Listening.

Focus on each connection. When you are networking with someone at an event give them your undivided attention. Networking is about building lasting relationships, not about pushing unwanted business cards at strangers. Concentrate on what the person is saying and try to pick up nuances you can leverage later. But don’t ignore the cards – people are impressed when you meet again and you recall their name along with details of your last meeting and most of us need a prop to help remember this key information.

Build rapport. Build rapport by applying these simple steps:

  1. Find common ground. When you talk to people try to find out what you have in common with them by asking different questions and listen closely for commonalities. Try to find professional and personal commonalities, just make sure it doesn’t feel like an interrogation!
  2. Maintain eye contact. When you’re speaking to someone your eye contact will let them know you are interested and listening. This is a key part of ‘Active Listening’.
  3. Use open body language. Face your body toward them and at times even lean in when they are talking, this will show them you’re engaged. Avoid leaning back, facing away from them or crossing your arms, as this can indicate you don’t agree or that you’re uninterested.
  4. Be aware of your facial expressions. Be conscious of your facial expressions when people are talking to you. If frowning they may think that you disagree with them and if you’re smiling and nodding they will think you agree or are telling them to go on, but your expression needs to be authentic.
  5. Mirror the person you are speaking with.  Mirroring means matching the body language, speech and tone of the person you are talking with, and is a great way to build rapport quickly.
  6. Be confident and friendly.  People are naturally attracted to warm, happy and friendly people so make sure you are. Not only will it make you more likeable, you will also help those who are nervous to feel more relaxed around you.
  7. Make them feel good about themselves. When the opportunity arises, pay the person you are talking with a genuine compliment. When we make others feel good about themselves, they naturally warm to us and remember us more positively.

Then Follow up right away. Connect with your new contacts on LinkedIn or friend them on Facebook if you use your account for professional purposes. This is where in-person networking and online networking converge, and don’t overlook the potential of e-mails and phone calls to people you know and with whom you’d like to stay in touch.

Effective networking is both fun and valuable all it takes is practice.

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Communicating Success

October 22, 2013

As reported by PMI’s 2013 Pulse of the Profession™, an organisation’s ability to meet project timelines, budgets and especially goals significantly impacts its ability to survive. The Pulse study also demonstrated that the most crucial success factor in project management is effective stakeholder communication. PMI’s findings show that high performing organisations are more effective communicators and that organisations assessed as highly-effective communicators are five times more likely to be high performers than minimally-effective communicators. To read more download the report: The High Cost of Low Performance – The Essential Role of Communication.

There are probably several reasons for this strong correlation between effective communication and project success. From the broader stakeholder management perspective, projects and programs are only really successful once their outputs have been adopted by the stakeholders within the end user community and are being used to generate value. This means changing the way the stakeholders and the organisation work, which requires change!  Creating the desire for change within the affected stakeholder community requires highly effective communication and interestingly, if the communication is believed, the way people react and feel changes in response to the messages.

Research in Australia, New Zealand and the USA has consistently demonstrated physical changes in people based on what they have been told. Scientific studies ‘down under’ have shown people who are told wind turbines cause health problems experience health problems. The symptoms of ‘wind farm syndrome’ are only found in English speaking communities that have been exposed to anti-wind farm propaganda.  For more on this see: Wind farm:  https://theconversation.com/how-the-power-of-suggestion-generates-wind-farm-symptoms-12833 and https://theconversation.com/new-study-wind-turbine-syndrome-is-spread-by-scaremongers-12834.

Positive effects can also be communicated, in a 2007 study, Harvard researchers told one group of female hotel attendants that their usual duties met the surgeon-general’s recommendations for an exercise regimen. Four weeks later, the researchers found improvements in blood pressure, body mass index, and other health indices among the informed group, relative to a control group of attendants that had not been so informed.

These effects appear to be real, Hilke Plassmann, Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD reports that a study she co-conducted in 2008 measuring neural responses to drinking wine showed different responses to ‘cheap’ and ‘expensive’ wines. But, the researchers deliberately misled participants about the prices of the wines, claiming one cost US$45 when it actually cost US$5 and presenting another as costing US$10 when it really retailed for US$90.

Participants were instructed to sample various wines through a straw from inside an MRI machine which allowed their brain activity to be observed while they were consuming the wine. What was found were changes in the neural activity in an area called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is an area that encodes our experience of pleasure.

The findings highlighted the speed with which humans form lasting impressions that synthesise all types of data. The bias kicks in at a very early stage, and for the wine tasters, it really changed their taste perception.

From sportswear to cars, expectations of a product or service can actually create a resulting experience. Consumers are constantly told that the latest Nike running shoes or Mercedes-Benz can offer higher performance. Consumers believe it, they make a purchase and they experience it. What this implies in the realm of project stakeholder management is the conversations around your project will have a direct effect on how people experience the change!  Negative gossip and scaremongering will cause bad reactions, positive news creates positive experiences.

The expectations created by communication (or lack thereof) will tend to become self fulfilling prophecies – to make this work for you, you need to communicate to your stakeholders the expectation that the change your project is creating will be beneficial and good for the majority of the stakeholders.  If this message is both true and believed (the two elements are not automatically connected), the experience of the stakeholders is more likely to be positive.

Achieving this level of communication requires a combination of strategic thinking backed up by effective implementation, with a clear thread of responsibility running throughout.  The best strategists believe:

  • If I can’t articulate how we’re actually going to make this project work, it probably won’t work. They know that there are a lot of gaps, holes, and challenges in their strategies. They tirelessly keep a critical eye on the viability of their plans and stay curious — continuously asking themselves and others, how will this really work? When they find issues, they team up with others and fix it.
  • While it’s painful to integrate execution planning into strategising, it’s even more painful to watch the strategies fail. Good strategists understand that effective planning leads to effective execution and outcomes.
  • Sounding smart is overrated. Doing smart is where the real value lies. Ideas are just that — ideas. They know that if they’re not executed well, their strategies are nothing more than daydreams.

The best executors believe:

  • They need to be involved in the strategy process early and contribute practical insights to the overall development of the objectives.

  • They need to know the “whys” behind the strategy. They want to know the intent and the thinking behind the strategy.

Communicating for success means making a significant proportion of your stakeholders into ‘executors’ who believe in the benefits of the project/program and use their beliefs to influence others. Authenticity is crucial but so is passion and communication.


It’s OK not to know!

October 10, 2013

You do not need to know everything! Unfortunately, to maintain their authority many project managers and other leaders feel they need to be the expert that has the answer to every question.  They think is a sign of weakness to ask for help or information or simply admit they ‘don’t know’. Rather than asking for input from their team, they burn energy trying to work out the answer themselves, even when it’s clear that this is not possible. Rather than being upfront with their team and managers, they either hide and don’t tell anyone they’re wrestling with a problem; or simply hope the issue goes away.

The simple fact is that if you don’t know something and waste your time trying to find the answer, or worse still make an expensive mistake based on incomplete of false knowledge, no-one benefits least of all you; particularly if you have pretended to be the source of ‘all knowledge’! Once your bluff has been exposed your credibility is destroyed and with it your ability to lead effectively (see more on effective leadership).

Strangely, most people are happy to offer help when someone else asks for it, but are shy or embarrassed to ask for help themselves. Strong leaders, managers and team members have the ability to overcome this ‘shyness’, take the time to clearly understand what they don’t know and then proactively seek help to build their knowledge and capability.

Everyone wins by asking for information or help when needed, rather than wasting time and energy trying to solve the problem themselves. The key is asking the ‘right questions’ in the ‘right way’ (see more on the art of effective questioning) – the combination of engaging with team members through effective questions and making them feel important through active listening makes you a better leader and will also show your team that it is OK for them to ask for help as well. Then as a bonus, all of the energy that was being wasted wondering, researching and struggling to solve the problem can be used for positive purposes and the team moves forward.

The power of ‘not knowing’ will generate all sorts of efficiencies and open up two way communication within the team. A couple of examples include:

  • You can use your lack of knowledge to delegate (see more on the art of delegation). There are some tasks that are simply better delegated to an expert who knows precisely how to do the job quickly.  I’m sure everyone could learn to use pivot tables in Excel – but is it worth several hours of struggle when a knowledgeable expert can solve the issue in a few minutes – even if the expert is the most junior member of the team?
  • You can use your lack of knowledge is to engage team members. Go to a team member and get them to talk you through the challenge they have been working on. Tell them you haven’t really been across it and would like a briefing. You’ll get the lowdown on the task they are attacking and some good insights into how they work.

Finally, by actively demonstrating to your team that you ask for help when needed will encourage them to do the same, and as a consequence reduces errors, frees up communication and enhances the flow of information in a positive way. This may seem obvious, but it won’t happen without a push in the right direction.

Things you can do as a leader:

  1. First, stop talking to yourself and decide that you are going to talk to someone else.
  2. Decide who that person will be.
  3. Craft the conversation. Write down what you are going to ask them and how you hope they will respond.
  4. Schedule a meeting with the person and promise you will ask them for help and be open to their suggestions.
  5. Tell someone of your intentions; someone who will hold you to account for having the meeting and asking for help.

Then be pleasantly surprised; most people are honored to be asked to assist their friends and colleagues and by asking for help you are showing them you respect their knowledge and abilities. This approach will even work with your boss and other stakeholders provided you ask intelligent questions in the right way, at the right time.

So in summary, it really is OK to know what you don’t know and seek help! The skill is being able to ask effective questions that get the right answers and then having the knowledge needed to appreciate and use the information once you have received your answer.  Remember, as a leader and a manager, in the end you are measured by what you actually achieve, not what you claim to know!