Business Networking Strategy Part 1

I’ve written several posts about elements of networking in the past, but never gotten straight at networking strategy at a higher level. I’ll split this into 2 posts this week due to length…

First, a few simple diagnostic questions:

How often do you get called with a new job opportunity or sought out for advice?

If it’s rare, you have a network problem.

Do you have a lot of others you can call for advice or to help with a critical introduction?

If no, you have a network problem.

Networking is among the most written about topics in business. My quick search of yielded 17,500 results to “business networking”. These included best sellers like Never Eat Alone and Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty as well as random tactical cut and paste guides like How to Succeed in Business Using LinkedIn: Making Connections and Capturing Opportunities on the World’s #1 Business Networking Site (I’m not making this one up…it’s a whole book!)

If it’s so well covered, why do we struggle with it? Just go read hundreds of pages about it and do it. I think it’s a mix of lacking both urgency and confidence. Many fail to fully appreciate the importance of developing a strong network. They know intellectually that it matters, but other priorities intrude. As for confidence, I get a lot of “why would they want to talk to me?” type responses from students and professionals.

I’ll briefly lay out some thoughts on how to approach both a short term networking strategy (for example a job search) as well as how to develop healthy networking habits for the long term.

What is “networking”?

Too many view it as a negative or think of it stereotypically as extracting some sort of value from others. This is probably part of the hang-up with it. My perspective mirrors the Chinese term “guanxi”. Here it is defined as a combination of “connections” and “relationships”. The two are inextricable tied. I think the American/Western sense of networking overly emphasizes the connections piece to the detriment of the relationship element.

So let’s stipulate that when I say “networking”, I mean “building guanxi”. It has to be mutualistic or you’ll make others feel used. No one wants to feel used.

Short Term Networking Strategy

Typically, you could call this “job search”. You’ve either been laid-off, you’re a student seeking or you’ve decided it’s time for a change. There are other possible motivations I can think of like researching a new area for work, seeking business opportunities as a sales-person etc. For the sake of this post we’ll assume you’re looking for work.

1 – Develop a strategy

A friend asked me to comment of this because she sees too many clients “all over the place” in their search. I get the same thing. Among my first questions to advice seekers is “what are you looking for?” and “who have you talked to?” I’m often fascinated by the disconnect between the two.

It often falls into what I call the “streetlamp phenomena”. You know, the one about the person on their knees looking for lost keys under a light in the parking lot. Someone comes up and asks if they can help look for the keys. “Sure” says the first person. When asked where there car is, they say “over there, but I’m looking for my keys here because there’s better light.”

Searches too often start in a closed network, go slowly and stay in a closed network. You need to break out. Social network theory emphasizes the importance of diverse, non-overlapping connections because of their ability to connect you into new potentially rich networks. Stated differently, if you only talk to people you know, how much will you learn?

So how do you do it?

I encourage people to develop a clear plan, like they would for any project. You need to define how much time you’re willing to spend and what your primary goals are. Here’s a prior post on determining what you want.

From a time perspective, you have to decide on the urgency. If you’re really looking I don’t see how you can do it in less than 10-15 hours a week even if you’re employed. If unemployed, it’s obviously a full time gig.

So beyond the broader “figuring out what you want” advice, how do you plan? My thought process is usually to define a few themes or vectors to drive the broad contours of your activity. At some point, you have to decide on a few “constants” (fixed priorities) and what you can treat as “variables” (or flexible). The constants should drive the majority of your activity.

For example, if your goal is to get a position in the medical device industry, then most of your time should be spent focused on logically connected discussions. It’s perfectly fine to talk to people not currently in the industry if there’s some tie back (like they used to be employed at Medtronic etc.)

Talking to someone at General Mills with no clear connection isn’t on your path. You may still have that conversation, but categorize it into “off-topic” conversations. There’s a place for these, but it should be certainly less than half and probably less than 25% of your effort.

These themes/vectors can be industry (medical device), company (3M), geography (Chicago), role-based (B2B Marketing) or any other reasonably well defined “constant” that lets you build critical mass in your networking efforts.

Critical mass is important. You need to get to a certain relationship “density” to get positive momentum. You may need to meet 10-20 people or more at a large company to have a sense of culture, available positions and what businesses are growing/hiring. Similar for an industry association, non-profit community etc. One meeting won’t get you there.

There’s an organic sense of how broadly or narrowly to define these parameters that will come to you as you go through the process. For example, one company may be too narrow if you have time urgency in your search. There just may not be a position available in your window. Similarly, saying “anything in Chicago” is probably too broad. It’s a big city and if you don’t have more defined objectives and you ask me for help, I don’t really know where to start.

A former student of mine did a wonderful job of getting a great job in Europe with a Minneapolis based search several years ago. He and I chatted and in the end, he focused on only 5 companies he thought met his career and location goals. They all seemed achievable given his prior work experience and academic performance. Over 6-9 months he talked to >15 people in each company – mostly on the phone, building a network while demonstrating strong and clear interest and aptitude. In the end he got offers from 3 of the 5. I’ll talk about tactics next time, but trust me that his focus allowed him to deeply mine these organizations, making him more aware of opportunities and better prepared for interviews when they arose.

So in the end, you need to get to something reasonably focused and not delude yourself that a scattershot approach will yield much beyond frustration. So develop a plan.

Next time I’ll talk about executing your plan and adjusting as you learn.

Link to Part 2.

9 thoughts on “Business Networking Strategy Part 1

  1. Awesome post.The intensity of thoughts and strength of words has compelled me to rethink of my interaction with the outer world-
    The people.

    Thanks Phil

  2. I absolutely like the story of “streetlamp phenomena”. It is true that many people spend lots of time and effort to do things that they think it is right, but actually it is wrong. The key success is always not so obvious for you to find. I have a similar but little different story to share with you. “Put a bee and a fly into two seperate bottles individually. Take these two bottles into a dark room and have light shine at the bottom of the bottles. The bee is very smart. It thinks the exit is at where the light is. However, the fly does not know, so it keeps hitting the bottle in all directions. Two minutes later, the fly gets out of the bottle, but the bee is still hitting the bottom of the bottle. “

    • Jessie – I like the “bee and the fly”. I’ll have to use it somewhere. It’s important to not just focus on what’s easy if you want to make meaningful progress.

  3. Great post! Very insightful commentary on one of the most commonly practiced aspects of business. Especially appreciated the information on guanxi.

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