Strategic networking

Improving your network

"I have a question, and I am afraid it's kind of dumb" Elizabeth said to me. Elizabeth is the Chief Marketing Officer of a high tech start up in Austin, Texas. She is talented and creative. Dumb she is not.

We had just discussed her attending a conference - she wasn't sure it was worth her time since she already knew most of the content being presented. I thought it would be a great networking opportunity for her. "I'm not entirely sure what people mean by 'networking' and I'm certainly not sure what the value of it is. I know it's important, but I feel like I already know a lot of people. Why should I focus on this?"

A networking tutorial, one of my favorite topics! Not dumb at all. This is a fundamental question that some of my most sophisticated clients ask me about. The value of networking - cultivating mutually beneficial relationships - is pretty subtle. It takes time and energy and the payoff is not usually direct or immediate. And even if you know it's important, how do you fit it into your busy routine?

First the business case. Networking is like exercise: it helps everything. You can only do so much on your own. To get to the next rung on the ladder, you need other people to "vote" for you. To get new clients you need other people to refer you and other people to hire you. To get a project done in your company, you need other people to support it, make time for it, and often go out of their way for it.

All of these different forms of "getting ahead" have one common factor: other people on your team. You get to know them, and get them on your team (and you on theirs), through networking.

Three principles for you to keep in mind: 1) add new people to your network; 2) deepen existing relationships 3) repeat.

1) Add new people

When you meet new people, you feed your network. You also take advantage of "the strength of loose ties." It may sound counter-intuitive to you, but the people with whom we are least connected offer us the most opportunities.

Think about it: the people you meet now don't know you from 10 years ago, so don't have the "baggage" about your younger self, before you grew into the sophisticated professional you are today. New people, by definition, don't hang out with your "gang" and so they give you access to completely new networks. And they simply know different things than you do.

The most important things about the conference Elizabeth was thinking about attending was that she had never been to it before and that it was in Hong Kong - she would surely meet new people there.

2) Deepen existing relationships

There are plenty of people you know well. You might want to know some better.

The benefit of deeper relationships is that people you are tight with will go out of their way for you (and you for them, of course.) You can count on them to put a good word in for you at critical moments. You know they will take your call at 6 p.m. on a Friday.You trust them to have an honest discussion and to get their unadulterated take on a political situation.

As we talked, Elizabeth thought about several folks she had known for a long time but mostly superficially. Several of these people she liked and would welcome having a deeper professional and personal connection with, but it had never happened naturally.

When I asked her for an example, she mentioned a well-known expert in her field. She had met him at events in the past and they had been to group dinners together. They got along very well, but she had never initiated 1-1 time to get to know him better. The more she thought about doing so, the more she could see advantages to it, and she kept thinking of more and more people she would enjoy deepening her relationship with.

"OK," Elizabeth said, "I get it. But how do you find the time to keep this up?"

3) Repeat

Elizabeth is right: to gain any traction you have to work on your network consistently, not just now and again. And it's hard for everyone to find the time.

Shift your mind-set to realize that working on your network is not a distraction to your job, it's part of your job. Networking is relevant and critical for you if you are junior and trying to get ahead or if you are senior and have a mandate to push forward a major work effort. It is critical to have a strong networking if you are looking for a job or to keep your "brand" and skills sharp and current if you've been in the same job forever.

Once you make peace with that, set goals for yourself: perhaps add 1 new person per month and deepen 1 relationship per week. Keep a log of your progress, and make sure you evaluate yourself regularly so it doesn't fall off your radar screen. Then, add these tasks into your day, making use of small pockets of time when you can. Bottom line: if they are on your calendar, they will get done.

Elizabeth is pretty competitive and she likes to keep score. She created a spreadsheet for herself. She also created a specific list of new people she wants to add and new environments to find new people as well as people she wants to get closer to. The more concrete you get the more likely you are to make good use of a spare 10 minutes.

As summer winds down, make use of that "back to school" energy and find ways to enhance your network using these tools. I would love to hear from you to hear how this works for you!