I sat there one Christmas and watched the sales people walk in with baskets of goodies and bottles of whiskey, and wondered why there was nothing for me. Initially I thought it was because as the Accountant, I wasn’t particularly client facing. But after a fair bit of naval gazing, I realised it was simply because I wasn’t a people person. A bit more thinking and I realised that since every opportunity that had ever come to me, came from a person – maybe I should change my ways and become a bit of a networker, rather than just being good at my job.
Now an old colleague, psychologist Peter Zarris says, “If you’re over 30 and you want to change, its going to hurt, and if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not really changing.” Therefore, having decided to change, I knew my journey to being a good people person and networker was going to hurt.
I looked around for information on how to become a good networker, and found plenty of resources, hundreds in fact. But they were all pretty much on what I should be doing, not how to get there i.e. Standards I wouldn’t live up to, or Tests I would fail. Therefore I decided to build my own “training programme” which I feel is now proven, so I decided to share.
1. Decide People are Important
Really, you have to believe in your heart that all people are important, and not just as potential clients/partners/influencers/friends/lovers. Everyone has their own unique attributes, that are almost always completely hidden from you – such as who their best friend is, or what their special talent is. Therefore networking isn’t just some strategy where you judge people and move them them on quickly if they aren’t of immediate use to you. Instead its a more of a life choice where you attempt to uncover who the person is, what they have going on in their life and appreciate them for what they are. It maybe that their value to you is an insight, a joke, a friendship, a service, or it could be that they have a mate or sibling that could be a potential customer. An added bonus its that when you have decided someone is important, it doesn’t require effort or a system to remember their name.
By the way, you are important too. There is no point networking if you think everyone is better than you, because they won’t want to connect with you. Now I’m not suggesting you be vain or arrogant, what I am suggesting is you get to know yourself, all your attributes and figure out what you have of value.
Top tip : Try mapping out all your attributes, not just business ones. By externalising them through consciously writing or drawing them, means you are forced to recognise them and you will remember them downstream.
2. Master the Art of Conversation
You can’t network if you can’t hold a conversation, and conversation is a hell of a lot more than just grilling someone or delivering a monologue about what you do. The art of conversation is about being able to talk freely and easily with others whether its small talk or expressing big ideas. Its about being a good listener and being able to understand exactly what people are saying, and how the feel about things.
Family and friends are a great place to practice the art of conversation – rather than being quiet and a listener at dinner, start getting chatty and ask people about their day. The more you practice the more relaxed you become. Small talk with strangers normally starts with me asking about the origin of their name. Not because its a technique, but because a name is the first thing offered, and I am endlessly intrigued by the origins of names. When I met Susan Youngblood last week, how could I not wonder where her name came from?
Top tip : Everyone likes talking about themselves a bit.
3. Overcome Shyness
Shyness is part of the human condition as we are all endlessly concerned that we will be rejected by strangers. My observation is that shyness doesn’t magically vanish as you become more senior, it just presents as gruffness or cool formality rather than an awkward silence.
To network effectively you need to overcome shyness and the only way to do that is to practice, practice, practice being relaxed with strangers.
The easiest way I have found is to start with quick conversations that are about the environment. “God its hot”, “That floor is really slippery”. Once you get comfortable with this, you can even start treating everyone a bit like a friend – connecting with them at a “we are all the same under the skin level”. Such as telling someone they are your “new best friend for the next 30 seconds”, while you share their umbrella and cross a road in the rain. However don’t stay overly friendly after the opening statement as its not that far a jump from nice guy to weirdo, when speaking to strangers.
Top tip : Always speak to strangers in elevators, they will be gone in a minute so it doesn’t matter if it goes pear shaped.
4. Create Networking Opportunities
Now that you now how to do small talk and are no longer shy, its time to take your new found abilities out for a spin. Create some networking opportunities for yourself. This could be joining a club, going to an industry function or volunteering to assist a special interest group make things happen. They only thing I suggest you don’t do is go to networking functions. They are generally full of junior people desperately hoping you are an opportunity for them – and quickly discarding you if you aren’t. Yuck.
Top tip : Always do some research before going to a function. Its a lot easier to remember people’s names if you have reviewed the guest list or read the speaker’s bio.
Now that you are networking, you need to grow and feed your network, rather than just have a series of transactions. The solution to this is to of course use technology, and develop the right habits and processes. So not only do you have a large network, you have mindshare with that network.
Firstly, never be shy to hand out business cards and make it a habit of having them with you. Secondly, add the new contact details you receive immediately into your contacts, or CRM system, or LinkedIn. Thirdly, send your new contact a short note, saying “nice to meet you” and confirming any agreements,
This way you will make the new connection “real” and you will have mindshare with them when they see an opportunity that suits you. You will also see a record of your network growing over time, which makes you feel you are achieving something.
Top Tip: Using a social network like LinkedIn means that you can constantly “feed” or add value to your network with little snippets, without looking pushy.
And the results? I have been living like this for about 5 years and it took me way out of my comfort zone, but now unsurprisngly its easy. I have gone from having 25 connections on Linkedin to around 900, my mobile phone went from having 100 contacts to 2,500. Consequently, I get a slow but steady stream of invitations to speak at forums and get involved in new opportunities.
Plus, I get plenty of Christmas gifts :)