Did you ever notice that the most successful people you know are always ahead of the curve? They know everyone and everything. And, if they don’t, they know someone who can make it happen. These people are master networkers. They know how to develop a good network and how to use that network to generate more business in a month than most people do in a year.
What do these people know that you don’t? Why are they wildly successful and you… aren’t? It’s not that they work harder than you – they just work smarter. They network. And not in the obnoxious “hey, can I give ya my card?” kind of way – they network smarter, more personally. A way based on being generous, helping friends and colleagues connect, building genuine relationships along the way. It’s not about keeping score (as in, I did you a favor, so now you owe me…) It’s about how to get what you want and making sure that the person giving it gets what they want and/or need, as well.
So, what is networking? Networking is the development and maintenance of various relationships in your personal and professional lives. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Many people either are intimidated or unable to do this inherently simple concept because they make it more difficult than is necessary.
All networking, whether personal or professional, boils down to one simple concept: sharing. Whether it’s sharing our time or information or resources or opportunities, it’s really that simple.
How do you build a network? Do you contact old friends from school (who you haven’t spoken to in 15 or 20 years)? Maybe colleagues from your first job out of college? Or your husband’s best friend’s fiancé, who works for a company you would LOVE to do business with? The answers are: YES, YES, YES and MORE!
Start with your “core” network and then build outward. Your “core” network would be your family, friends, people you are close enough to that you wouldn’t think twice to ask them out to lunch. These are the people you know you can depend on, and that feel the same about you. See? For all you who thought you didn’t know anything about networking… you’ve just built a small one. Or, in my case, being the youngest of eight children and my parents having 12 siblings between them, a fairly nice sized one. And, while this is a good start, your professional network needs to be bigger, stronger, more inclusive.
The fastest way to grow your network is to become active, be seen. Join professional societies related to your industry. Join clubs and organizations (like Women Advancing Women.) Be an active alumnus at your alma mater. Offer to speak at events. Volunteer. Whatever it takes. Just go out and meet other people.
Attend events that relate to an interest or activity you enjoy. Just because you are a CPA doesn’t mean you should only go to accounting-related conferences to network. A major advantage to taking part in activities you enjoy is that it makes conversation so much easier. While you’re discussing the phenom that is Boobie Gibson, ask the other person about themselves and what they do for a living. Who knows? That person who sits in front of you at the Cavs’ games all season might have an “in” at the company for which you’re dying to work. You could sit behind them all season and, without initiating that first conversation, you’d never know.
Another way is to read. Read a lot. Read the daily newspaper. Read the Wall St. Journal. Invest in a subscription to Crain’s and any local or professional trade journals and magazines. All of these are great sources of information. Almost all of these sources publish new hires, promotions, etc. for companies in the area. Keep track of the names of people in your field. Maybe you see an established person mentioned constantly and you feel that it would be beneficial to meet this person – of course, without being stalkerish. Track down their work email address or look up their office phone number, and initiate contact. Mention that you read about them and their recent promotion or their having been awarded a new professional designation, whatever. Just make contact. Don’t worry if you get voice mail or you don’t get an immediate response. People are busy. It’s OK. Most people will respond, even if it’s just to say that they’re flattered you contacted them in the first place.
Now, if the idea of contacting people you don’t know is intimidating, start small. When at a networking event, look for a familiar face. If you see someone you know, approach them. After a few minutes of talking, ask if they know anyone else there and if they would introduce you around. But, what if you don’t recognize anyone? Go straight to the stuff that interests you. When you talk about things you are genuinely passionate about, you light up and appear more engaging and confident. And that will draw people to YOU. Or, join a group’s existing conversation. Listen for a bit. Then, once you get the “gist” of the conversation, ask a related question. You build credibility by asking and it’s easier than just barging in with an opinion.
While there is no substitute for face-to-face conversation, social networking sites like MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. can be very useful tools for building relationships. They are great for tracking down old friends… and these sites, also, give you access to all your friends’ friends. For example, you went to high school with Jane Doe. You reconnect after all these years via Facebook. While scrolling through Jane’s friends, you discover she knows John Smith. John Smith is the president of XYZ Corporation and is someone with whom you would love to work! Now, in order to “make it happen”, you need to call or email Jane and ask if she would facilitate an introduction.
Another great use for social networking sites is for research. Most profiles have photos and list job history, activities, favorite things, etc. So, do your homework before meetings. Say Jane Doe agrees to introduce you to John Smith, and John emails you, he wants to have lunch. By checking out his Facebook page, maybe you find out that he enjoys Thai food and loves reading historical fiction. When you call to schedule that lunch, you could suggest meeting at that new Thai place downtown. Get to the restaurant early and get a table. As soon as you see him enter, stand up and greet him by name. Then, during lunch, ask his opinion on that new New York Times best seller, set during the Revolutionary War. Do you see what you did there? By doing a little research ahead of time, you were able to show that you knew enough about him (not just his name and job title) to make this meeting worth his time.
Remember that you don’t have to find a shared interest to make a connection. You just have to be willing to share your interests with others.
Now that you’ve built a network, you need to cultivate it. I like to use the garden concept: Building your network is the same as planting seeds in a garden. If you abandon it after planting is finished, everything will eventually wither up and die. You need to water the plants, make sure there is adequate sunlight, weed it *if necessary*. Networks are the same. If you build up a list of names without cultivating it, the list will dry up. And, rather than helping you, it will just take up space in your Outlook file.
A good way to cultivate your network is to regularly “ping” your connections. By “ping”, I mean, like the old phone company commercials used to say, “Reach out and touch someone.” Find out who is looking for a new job or who needs to hire someone. See if you can help make that introduction. Sure there isn’t anything in it for you now but, down the road, when something in your realm of expertise becomes available, these people are more likely to remember you favorably and most likely will give you a call.
Practice “Drive-By Flattery” regularly. That means, if you know someone who has done an amazing job at something, don’t just thank or compliment them. Tell his or her boss. It will increase their capital at work. Flattery in the workplace, if done properly, can be the difference between a “cost of living” increase and a “Wow, you’ve had a knock-out year!” raise. And, trust me, your connections will LOVE you if your “drive-by” message to their boss was the reason for that raise!
Be grateful. Try to consciously practice gratitude every day. For example, I don’t send out Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year’s cards. Rather, I send out Thanksgiving cards. That’s a great time of the year, as it reminds us to be grateful. For me, it’s a time to say how thankful I am, at that very moment, for my connections’ presence in my life. Because my contact list is well over 5,000 people all around the world, I usually send e-cards. Sites like Plaxo have some wonderful, business-appropriate cards (and they’re free). Every November, I guarantee that, even if I haven’t said it recently, all my connections know how much they mean to me.
Oh, another favorite thing of mine is birthday e-cards. I use Plaxo to monitor my contact list. One of their fields is for people’s birthdays. Now, not everyone fills this section out, but many do. Seven days before their birthdays, Plaxo sends an email to tell me it’s coming up. I’ll then take a few minutes, create an e-card, and schedule it to be delivered on their big day. It’s a free service and it only takes about 5 minutes. The responses I get from these cards are amazing – people LOVE being remembered.
This one comes straight from Kevin Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone (great book and I highly recommend it to everyone!) Never eat alone, ESPECIALLY at corporate and social events. Nothing says “failure” better than being “invisible” at these events. You should spend your time cultivating and nurturing your connections, building new ones, and making yourself seen and heard.
Also, follow up. When you meet others, if you promise to share an article, website, phone number, etc. – make sure you FOLLOW UP. Nothing destroys your credibility faster with new connections than giving the impression that you don’t keep your word.
If you regularly “ping” your connections, playing matchmaker shouldn’t be too difficult. Being that I’m a recruiter, I keep track of everyone I know who is looking for a new position. If they are in the accounting or finance fields, I’m trying to place them with my clients. If they aren’t, I keep a list of their names and what they are looking for. I, also, keep a similar list of connections who are looking to hire. When I see an overlap between a position available and a connection looking, I make an introduction. Simple as that. While I’m sure many recruiters try to finagle a commission, should a match be made, I don’t. All I ask is that if my connection who is offered the position would pass along my contact information to others they know who are looking. And, if my connection who is making the hire, would keep my firm in mind should an accounting or finance position need to be staffed.
It’s not always about making money. And, while that’s hard for many to swallow, I can honestly say that my highest-earning placement fee came because a connection I made through one of these matches eventually became the head of that company’s HR department and remembered me (and used my firm exclusively) when they were looking for a new CFO.
By doing this, asking that they think of you when they are in need of your type of services, you are not keeping score. Oh, we ALL know a scorekeeper or two… these are the people who keep track of every favor they’ve ever done for someone and whether these people have reciprocated yet. The successful networker is one who recognizes that success is gained through giving without keeping score.
So, if you need a little reinforcing, remember what’s in it for you – the reward of having done something good for someone. Period! Anything else is just icing on the cake.
I’ve been asked many times, “How do I build a relationship with people I just don’t like?” And, typically, we’re talking about people we meet in the workplace – a customer or boss or associate. My answer is usually, “Not everyone is going to be your new best friend, but if you’re forced to deal with this person, why not try to make it more personal and real? Wouldn’t you want a better relationship for the sake of success, mutuality, and most importantly, less angst and more joy?”
Personally, I deal with it by responding with the opposite of what my initial reaction might be. So, if I feel an urge to push back and be defensive, I try to be positive and affirming. When you’re confronted with difficult individuals, don’t let them tweak you.
Too many times I’ve had a friend call me and say: “Mary, I just became unemployed. I need to find a new job. Can your firm help?” My answer: “No.” Not because I’m trying to kick a person while they are down, but because I’m a recruiter. My clients, for the most part, are not looking for unemployed people. Ideally, they want the person at their biggest competitor who is currently doing the exact same job they are looking to staff. Realistically these people should have been building their network for the past 5, 10, 15 years – not just during the weeks since they became unemployed. If they had built their network, they should have been able to make 20 calls to people in their strong, thriving network and have 5 interviews scheduled within a week or two.
When you are ready to (or have to) make a career move, put out feelers. Let your network know. It’s been proven that over 60% of people find their new job via networking. Not using online job boards, not answering classified ads, not even working with recruiters and/or staffing agencies, but rather calling on their existing network.
Remember the Golden Rule of Networking: Build it before you need it. Think of the relationships you’ll need tomorrow, and start building them today.
How many people here know “The Big Networker”? You know – the self-centered schmoozer who’s got a drink in one hand and their business cards in the other? They’re ready to toss cards at everyone in the room. They’re also always looking to shove a card at Mr. or Ms. Big Shot because their ego tells them how great it would be to get their little card in that person’s hand. This is what I call The Networking Jerk. They are phony, insincere, overly ambitious glad-handers. And, thankfully, their time is over!
In order to build a great network and not be this idiot, you have to be generous, kind, caring. You need to care about helping your contacts be successful. When they see how much you actually care, most people tend to reciprocate in kind. Basically, it’s the whole “pay it forward” concept brought to life.
So, when you meet someone who you think would be a great person with whom to network, don’t just hand them your card. After a few minutes of “as meaningful as it can be under the circumstances” conversation, ASK if you can give them your card. If they accept and give you theirs in return, make a quick little note on the back about the conversation. Then, after the meeting, event, whatever, write a personalized thank you note. Notice I didn’t say, send a “thank you” email. Actually write a note and send it by mail. It doesn’t have to be anything big, maybe a couple of lines about how nice it was to meet them and you look forward to building a mutually beneficial business relationship. Emails are so easy to delete. A card in the mail, however, makes an impression. Honestly, how many of us actually receive handwritten notes anymore? And, when we do, do we immediately trash them or do we leave them on our desk for a day or two? They really make an impression – a good one.
Relationships are not finite. They’re not like a pie, where you can only have so much. Relationships grow each and every time you use them.
Hailing from the metropolitan New York City area, Mary Stewart McGovern spent the first 15 years of her career in accounting and finance. After relocating to Northeast Ohio two years ago, she craved a career change. Deciding to merge her flair for networking, strong desire to help others, and her solid accounting and finance background, she decided to try her hand at recruiting. Mary started her “second” career in recruiting by working with a highly regarded executive recruiting firm in Cleveland, Ohio.