The Art of Networking

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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