Patricia Perlman-Dee offers her top tips on networking.
Look up a definition of ‘networking’ in the Oxford dictionary and it will come back as “to interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contact”.
But creating a successful network is about far more than just exchanging information, it is just as much about putting in the hard work and time to develop the network in the first place.
Which perhaps begs a wider question. How often do we actually take the time to network effectively? Time is money, so in creating a strong network you need to be focused, planned and prepared so that the time you do invest in networking is highly effective and can be a catalyst for growing opportunities.
Also, as we gradually return to normal working life and offices in the wake of the pandemic, I would argue that the need to network has never been greater.
Why we network
People network for many reasons. You may be looking to raise your profile and visibility. You may be looking to learn and broaden your perspective. Or you could simply be researching areas of interest and looking for feedback.
Of course for many business owners networking is actually a key growth opportunity and a way to find new customers, suppliers and potential partners. As for me, I really enjoy meeting new people and don’t necessarily think of networking as a task but a fun part of everyday life.
Often social media is considered a great place for networking. Whilst I agree with this, I still think a live interaction (face to face or virtual) is far more superior in developing and establishing your network.
Attitude to networking
The first thing to therefore consider is your mind-set towards networking in the first place, and your own personal attitude. For instance, you may feel that networking is simply something other people do so for you is a waste of time and not important enough. Or maybe you are even a bit embarrassed about approaching people in the first place and find the whole practice unethical.
It is little surprise that such a negative attitude will not help you in any way to build and benefit from your network as your mind-set will hinder you. By contrast a positive attitude will generate results.
But in reality networking is actually a skill that we all have or can learn. It can help increase information flows, helps you to stay current, and is a great way of helping us to reach our potential. If you have a positive attitude to networking, you are already halfway there.
The five-step networking model
There are many networking models and top tips on how to network. Although they are often very good they do however tend to focus on networking when you actually are meeting people. So they typically focus on how to introduce yourself, ask questions, make a connection, body language etc. But networking is about so much more than just how you act in a crowded room.
Through reading many sources and attending many more networking events than I can remember, I recently came across a five-step networking process through one of my volunteer training sessions with the CFA Institute. I have since built further on this process to develop my own slightly modified version as follows:
One: Identify your objective
Is your objective to look for new research partners for a specific project that needs to be completed in nine months? Or are you looking to increase the number of potential distributors you have in your business? Whatever your goal is, make sure it is SMART (Manchester University SMART Goal document)
Two: Map your network
Identify who you want to network with. Write down a list of communities and individuals which you have professional or personal contact with. The list may include: people you currently work with; other departments within your organisation; former colleagues, clients or suppliers; voluntary groups; maybe school groups or political parties; hobbies; or a professional organisation such as a Chamber of Commerce or the professional body of your expertise.
Having done this then draw a spider map with yourself in the middle and your contacts around you. Their proximity to you indicates the level of contact needed, while the size of the arrow indicates the strength of the relationship and the size of the circle indicates the importance of the individual.
Then put together a network support table, such as the one below, where you map individuals in your network to what they can do for you. Of course, there will be reciprocity at some point, but for now the focus is on mapping your network and the importance and value of those around you.
Three: Identify what you can offer
This is where your famous ‘elevator pitch’ comes in. Basically, if you had 30 seconds in a lift with someone very important, how would you introduce yourself and what you have to offer?
It is important to note that you will most likely need to create a few separate elevator pitches, depending on who you are speaking to. Think about how you can be interesting to different people. If you are in business, a supplier would probably be very happy to network with you. However, your pitch if you are talking to potential customers will sound very different. The classic ‘I will help you solve your problems’ phrase will most likely need some polishing up.
Four: Identify any gaps
Identify what your objectives with networking are, what your offer is (your pitch), and where your contacts are. Consider whether your current and proposed network will assist you in meeting your objectives. Do you need to widen your contacts in any particular area? Are you maximising what you have to offer? And which individuals or groups will value what you have to offer most?
You may have a very good network in your current workplace, but is this enough if you want to gain wider recognition? Do you need to join any special interest groups or professional associations, or do you perhaps need to volunteer somewhere?
Five: Go network
Set the above all in motion. Get yourself out there, think creatively, invite others for lunch, attend meetings, remember significant dates of others, volunteer, take some training or maybe even write something for the internal newsletter or in-house media.