Networking – What’s In It For Me? by Liz Watt

Whilst the idea of networking can strike a chill of fear into many people, for others, networking comes naturally and they make it seem so effortless. They love it!

I would suggest though that most people – if they are honest – fall into the first category and find the whole idea of ‘networking’ and what they perceive it entails, a little intimidating.

I can still vividly remember attending my first solo networking event as a rookie recruiter, at one of the leading firms of accountants, and feeling literally terrified of the sea of people before me, all seemingly chatting away with supreme confidence, effortlessly moving from group to group, whilst negotiating the wine and canapes without spillage, and feeling in awe! It is only now, with the benefit of hindsight and a bit more knowledge, that I realise most people have felt the same at some point, and even after many years of experience will still feel apprehensive about taking the plunge and stepping into a room full of strangers.

So if the idea of networking can make all but the most hardened extrovert feel a bit nervous, why do it? What is the big deal? There is a great deal of research and anecdotal evidence that shows that having a robust professional network leads to more business opportunities, opens the door to career opportunities, strengthens and deepens sector and professional knowledge and can lead to long lasting and mutually beneficial relationships. In short – building and nurturing a professional network from the early days of your career can stand you in good stead throughout your working life.

One of the most common misconceptions about networking is to assume that it is ‘selling’. It is not. In fact it is quite the opposite. It is about making connections, being curious about the people you work with, about the clients and businesses with whom you come into contact and building relationships with those people. It is about using the information and insights you gain to add to your knowledge bank of the world in which you operate and then using this to your advantage. And remember – you don’t always reap where you sow, so think of this as a long term game. If you can adjust your mindset in this way then it might make the prospect of networking a bit more palatable!

It’s important to remember that building a network isn’t just about an external network; your internal network is invaluable too and a good place to start. Those able build great relationships successfully internally can find themselves assigned to key clients, asked to work on high profile projects and put themselves in the frame for further advancement. They are ‘visible’ and this is crucial in a fast moving and competitive business. And don’t forget that the connections you make internally may become external connections in time, as people change jobs or take on senior positions elsewhere. Very quickly the tentacles of your internal network will reach outwards and infiltrate into all sorts of unforeseen places.

So where do you start? Here are some ideas to help you build or extend your network:

  • Who do you know? Map your existing connections. You may think you don’t have much of a network, but we all have a network of some sort. It might help to divide your potential network into categories : Professional – colleagues, clients, suppliers, alumni groups, professional bodies, professional training groups; Personal – family, friends, school / university contacts, sports, hobbies, volunteer work, community contacts, wider social networks; Aspirational – people you admire in your sector, potential clients and mentors, colleagues who have technical knowledge or experience that you might benefit from; groups or networks you’d either like to join or establish.
  • What do you know? Everyone has something they can bring to the party, whatever their age and stage. There’s an assumption that the more confident networkers are those who are established in their careers and will therefore have more to talk about. However, those at an earlier stage have plenty to offer too. Maybe it’s insight into generational trends, new markets or technologies? And what are your outside interests? By doing your research in advance of a meeting or event, asking questions and actively listening to everyone you meet, you are bound to find points of interest and connection. Without too much effort, you are starting to build a relationship based on mutual interest.
  • Learn to listen! Networking isn’t about overwhelming everyone with your own magnificence. We’ve all attended events where we have been stuck with the person who loves the sound of their own voice, so don’t be that person! Work on being a great listener by asking the right open ended questions that will get people to engage with you in a meaningful dialogue. If you show genuine interest, an open and warm demeanour, people will naturally gravitate towards you.
  • What’s your purpose? It’s worth thinking about and being clear in your own mind why you are developing your network. Without a sense of purpose, anything you do won’t feel authentic.
  • Having committed to extending your network, where are you going to network? Identify what works best for you, whether it is attending industry focussed events, going to internal client seminars, arranging a coffee with someone in another department who might be useful or who you can ask advice from. Are there useful social groups you can join, or events that you can initiate and organise? And judicious uses of social media can also be a great way to extend your network – but use appropriately!
  • Once you’ve made connections, keep in touch with them. Clearly use your judgement – you don’t want to bombard people with unwanted calls or mails (think PPI or the calls you get from power suppliers – you don’t want to be seen in that bracket). But maybe there is useful industry intelligence you can share, or an event you can invite someone too – if you’ve exercised your listening skills effectively, as mentioned above, you will know what will get a positive reaction!

There is a reciprocal element to networking too. You might be able to help someone, or facilitate an introduction, or offer some advice, or mentor someone – for no immediate reward. But generally these acts of generosity don’t go unnoticed and pay back can come at the most unexpected of times.

The bottom line is that creating a network is not only advisable to maximise your career potential, but in many businesses it is seen as an essential part of your job, as a way of promoting the business and bringing in new clients. So getting comfortable with it and finding techniques that work for you are an essential part of the armoury of skills that you should be developing in your career. After all, it is no use being an industry expert if no one knows you exist! Or having fantastic ideas and no one to share them with. And what about those jobs that are never advertised that could be your dream job if only the person recruiting knew of your existence? Or that piece of business you would love to work on if only you were connected to the right people?

The case for developing a network are compelling. However, if you still feel apprehensive about your networking abilities and would like some help and advice, call Liz Watt for a confidential discussion : bltcoaching1@gmail.com

 

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