How To Start Networking — Differently
Despite interacting with others daily, many people still find formal networking challenging. As business leaders, we all likely understand the virtues of it. At work, you form and leverage strategic relationships up, down and sideways. Everything you do as a leader often requires the support, assistance, mentorship, investment or acceptance of others.
Because of this, understanding the necessity of networking is simple. It’s figuring out how to do it that it can become an issue.
I’ve observed that some people are introverted, and their nerves get in the way. A sea of strange folks milling around a big room can be overwhelming, overstimulating or make you feel as if you are in way over your head. I’ve seen others who are put off by the “sales” feel of the activity; they don’t want to be seen as someone who talks too much or too loud (or both) with an overused line. And some of us just keep forgetting our business cards.
Personally, I hated networking — until I redefined it. When I reflect on my own experiences attempting to network, I often think back to one event in particular: I walked into a venue that was alive with activity and full of potential. There was cheap wine, crudité and a line at the bar, and music was helping relax the after-work crowd. Several small clusters of people were gathered, and they stood in a warm and friendly circle of familiarity. It was clear everyone knew one another, so the last thing I wanted to do was walk up and wedge myself in there. I settled for walking to my car and going home instead.
Unfortunately, I’ve learned this is a common scene for many. Networking can feel like a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to a social mechanism that is often seen as a key to business success. But as I’ve grown and developed as a coach and leader, I’ve discovered new experiences. I’ve realized there is always more than one way to shear a sheep, peel an orange, cook an egg and develop new business connections in your life.
I often use “hunting” as a way to illustrate how I view traditional styles of networking. Whether the goal is a new set of contacts, leads or business cards, the networker’s modus operandi is to acquire business relationships. I’ve found this method of networking often occurs at mixers, conventions, all-hands meetings or dedicated networking events. And for many people, this approach is extremely effective; there is an open field of business prospects. But some leaders aren’t comfortable being so straightforward. If you prefer to grow your relationships more deliberately, try what I like to call “farming” and “performing.”
“Farming” is a mutualistic approach where you, the farmer, work to acquire and cultivate individual business relationships over a common area of interest and over time. Driving your networking effort is the desire to connect with one person at a time by being of service and co-creating opportunities that serve you and the person with whom you’re hoping to build a professional relationship. For example, if a friend introduces you to someone who’s working on something interesting, invite them to lunch. Ask to hear their story, and explore any potential areas to collaborate. After listening to someone talk about a project he or she is working on, ask yourself if there is a resource you can offer. I’ve found a simple invitation, such as, “Your project sounds interesting; may I buy you a coffee to learn how I can help?” can open up amazing opportunities to which you would only have access through other people.
“Performing” attracts business relationships via demonstration and social proof. This kind of networking occurs when you look for (or create) venues to demonstrate what you can do in front of a selected audience who might require it at some point in the future. As the performer, be willing to offer value upfront, via your performance. This way, you can spark the deep and enduring interest of your audience, who, in turn, might seek the services you’ve just shown you can provide. I’ve seen speakers and facilitators commonly use this method, as well as organizational thought leaders and internal consultants. They demonstrate the usefulness of their acumen in front of an audience to build a reputation that can be leveraged into an opportunity later on. Aim to provide an impactful performance that will endure over time to help keep your name and face in front of this audience well after your “performance” is over. Last, provide your prospective business colleagues with a reliable and consistent way for them to contact you when they need your help.
I haven’t been in a big room full of strangers in years. But, I love coffee and have listened to the success stories of people who eventually became good friends, colleagues and business partners. I pass on the cheap wine and opt to farm and perform now, so I can leverage those relationships later. To put it simply: I found a way of networking that is compatible with my style. The point is to build business relationships from which you can take and give. Once you wrap your head around your style of making a connection, you can stress less about the “how.”