Business Networking Strategy Part 2

Here’s the continuation of advice on building networks. Part 1 can be found here. A note, these are more “things to make sure you do” than “numbered steps”. They do follow this relative order, but please don’t get hung up on it. You can quibble with the order I put some of these, but that’s missing the forest for the trees.

1 – Develop your strategy. (This was most of the last post.)

2 – Determine who to reach out to first

You have to pick a place to start. To pick, I’d think about your relationships as concentric circles. Each ring is based on your own definition of “closeness”. I’ll leave it to you, but there are logically fewer people in the inner rings.

My first ring of relationships is close friends (and family). After that, you have people you know well and trust and who feel the same about you based on regular interaction (work, church, non-profit organization etc.) You have colleagues you are on good terms with, but aren’t necessarily close to after that and so on…You get the idea. Work your way out.

Write down lists of who you believe would meet with you based on the strategy you’ve laid out. I’m big on developing a tracking sheet to document your lists and activity. More on that below.

I personally don’t even have a family component, as I live 1500 miles from where I grew up and 1000 miles from where all my college friends live. But if you’re living near or in your home market this may be really valuable. I’ve had a number of students strongly leverage family ties, particularly at the start of their careers. The more experience you have, the more your starting points are your own.

Professional networking sites like Linkedin or Plaxo are very helpful as well. They help you keep track of connections and visualize who you know and roughly sort by company, industry, geography and several other criteria. They are not substitutes for your own list and more detailed analysis, but are helpful.

(Note: I STRONGLY recommend that you do not use social networking sites like Facebook for professional matters. It should go without saying.)

Increasingly I find it awkward to deal with people who aren’t on these sites (network effect anyone?). So you don’t have to, but it sure helps and doesn’t cost you much time, effort or money to have a decent profile you can share. I have friends who have privacy concerns. This is fair, but it’s up to you whether you want to be “findable”. If you are networking, presumably you want to be found. However, all this advice is channel/platform neutral.

So however/wherever you do it, start your list.

Who goes on it and in what order?

I always encourage people to have their earliest meetings with “safe” targets that are also likely to yield advice. Who in your existing network meets that profile? Connect with them and be relatively open about your goals and process. It’s often best to start outside your closest circle to get honest advice.

Family and friends can pull punches out of concern for your feelings or color their advice based on their own perceptions or needs. For example if your Dad wants you to join the family business it will be hard for him to be too supportive of an open conversation. You know yourself and your network, so do what makes sense to you.

3 – Extending your contact list

After this initial wave of contacts who’ll likely take your meeting regardless of their schedule and your presentation, you need to push into broader and deeper fields of possible contacts.

Think about common bonds you may share with others. What schools have you attended or organizations have you belonged to? I have seen university, military, faith, hometown and several other ties overcome initial reluctance. Even with very senior executives. Talk to your schools alumni office or career center. Many individuals have this information publicly available now on one of their various profiles.

A former boss who is one of the best business development professionals I’ve worked with used to do brown bags with junior staff on relationship building. One of his exercises was to have them write down every name they could think of in a few minutes that would probably take their meeting and be willing to help in some way. Then he’d have everyone share not just the name, but the NATURE of the connection. After hearing everyone else’s list, you got  a brief re-think period. The lists grew a bit.

His point was that the list was long and grew when you saw that others had maybe thought more broadly than you. So I’d encourage you to do something similar.

Based on a limited list of common bonds you think could work and search parameters focused on the themes you have prioritized (ie: industry, geography etc.) you need to come up with at least 20 names of people to try to connect with. Think of this list as seeds of a healthier network. (I actually think the number is higher, but my wife tells me I freak people out when I say “go talk to 100 people”.)

4 – Understand what you are looking for from a given interaction

You don’t need to be precise (“I need 3 leads and a positive recommendation”), but do need to have a general sense of what you are looking for. Are you looking for advice, other introductions, perspective?

I’ve stipulated “job” as your near term intention above, but even if this is the case it doesn’t mean every interaction is a job opportunity. Most aren’t. So what do you talk about or are you looking for from the 90%+ of interactions that aren’t directly a job discussion?

I suggest you flip the thought process and be looking for ways you can be useful to the other person. It can be as simple as asking “what can I do for you?” You may be surprised how easy it is to be useful. Send along a useful article they may not have seen, make an introduction etc. Even if nothing comes up, you made the gesture. You may be surprised at how useful you can be in unexpected ways.

So start with the other person and understanding their goals/needs where possible.

Having said that, it’s ok to have your own agenda. Just don’t be a tool or too transparent about it. Frankly if you don’t have an agenda, people will get frustrated with the lack of focus. Most of us have had a “so what are you looking for?” moment either as the networker or networkee. So develop a list of primary and secondary objectives from an interaction.

Also keep in mind the context of the other party’s level and closeness of relationship. For example, an SVP with an alumni connection may only have 10 minutes for you on the phone, so you better get to the point. A more peer to peer discussion may be over coffee or beer with no time constraint. Totally different interactions that you need to be prepared for.

5 – Introduce yourself and ask for

Now it’s time to reach out and try to set up a meeting. The goal most of the time is coffee, lunch or some face to face interaction. You may not always get it, but try.

As discussed above, know what you are asking for and be clear. Some people will have 90 minutes and be happy with a meandering discussion. Most won’t. Be explicit.

John,

My name is Phil Miller and I am a fellow alum of Rice University. I’m looking to better understand the medical device industry and I noticed on our alumni site that you work for Awesome Heart Devices Inc. as an xxx. I was wondering if you could spare a few minutes to discuss your company, role and the industry. I’m particularly interested in understanding how your career has progressed and what opportunities there might be for someone with my background.

My schedule is flexible and I understand how busy you must be. Let me know if you are willing to meet and a few dates and I’ll make my schedule work.

Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer.

Regards. Phil Miller

Seek introductions wherever possible, but don’t be afraid to just reach out. Alumni and other common bonds are powerful, you may be surprised how much people will do to try and help. So don’t be shy, but be respectful.

Don’t ever mislead someone as to your intentions. This is a sure way to collapse or poison a network.

6 – Work out your story

I have written about quickly telling your story in a past post on handling the first interview question most of us ask/get asked. I won’t rewrite it here, but a few additional comments are worth noting.

In summary, be clear and to the point. It should take you 2 minutes to get my attention and give me a high level understanding of your background and goals. I give an example in prior post.

If you are looking for a job, but this isn’t an overt interview you don’t need to say you’re searching. Particularly if a student, it’s strongly implied so let it go.

7 – Manage your interaction/event (meeting, email, call)

A few things to think about.

A)   Ask about the other person’s career, interests, goals etc. Even if it’s all about you, don’t make it all about you.

B)   If your goal is getting some help, make it easy for me. For example, if you ask for advice and I give it. Don’t argue with me. (This isn’t to say don’t ask probing questions, just don’t be a pest.) This ties back to knowing what you’re looking for as well.

C)   Be comfortable and act appropriately. You can get a read from the other party’s demeanor as to how casual or formal to be. Mirror them at first. For example, if they suggest a meeting in their office during office hours and you are working through an admin assume formal. If meeting after hours at a bar, a suit is probably overkill and you can assume a more casual atmosphere. You get the idea.

D)   Show, don’t tell. “I’m awesome!” isn’t as compelling as several stories that reflect really well on you.

E)   Be open minded and opportunistic. You never know how an interaction will go and you have to stay on your toes. You may be surprised at how open some people are. If interesting opportunities come up, you have to decide how “carpe diem” to be.

F)   Develop a sense of how far to go in asking for help. I encourage you to be assertive without going too far. You’ll develop this sense through practice. I would observe that the meek won’t inherit the earth, but the aggressive are also off-putting. Find the balance that works for your personality.

G)   Remember to “ask for the order”. Don’t lose sight of what your goal was from the meeting (assuming it has gone well).

H)   In the end ask if it’s ok to follow up in the future.

8 – Close the loop

Be professional and say thank you, but also let them know how things are going. If you’ve developed rapport, people are rooting for you and want to know how things are going.

In particular, make sure you clarify what you thought they offered to help with (names, emails, documents). I get asked a lot about follow up if they take awhile to get back to you. My rule is a respectful week, resend note as gentle reminder. If after 2-3 reminders nothing, let it go.

An aside – I hear all kinds of advice about hand written notes. They do make an impression, but haven’t in my experience been a huge deal. I have never written one and found email to be sufficient. Frankly, I lack the discipline to get the note written, stamped, addressed and sent consistently. Email I can do on my laptop at 4am.

9 – Stay in touch with those you felt a connection with

Building a network means keeping interesting relationships at least “warm”. More on this next time.

A few final thoughts:

I would add that often, the biggest obstacle is in your head. Just get over the initial fears and start doing what you need to do. What’s the worst thing that can happen – an embarrassing meeting? So what? Learn from it and don’t repeat the same mistakes.

Finally, track activity. We often kid ourselves about how much we’re getting done and staring a number in the face helps with confronting reality. Build a spreadsheet or db. But track it. You have to go deep and wide. I see many people rely too heavily on “single-thread” or narrow approaches. They can work, but are risky. More activity (within your defined themes) is always better.

Too many people delude themselves about actual efforts. It’s important to put genuine effort into this or it won’t yield any results.

This post is already too long, so I’ll defer long-term networking strategy to my next post. The theme will be “making it continuous, not periodic.”

As always, let me know your thoughts.

Link to Part 3.

3 thoughts on “Business Networking Strategy Part 2

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention GREAT post from Phil Miller, director on building & executing successful business #networking strategy; -- Topsy.com

  2. Hi Phil, when sustaining long-term relationships, what do you talk about with people you once set up informational interviews with? Short-term is easy because you usually acquire some sort of information, so you are “networking with content”. But in the long run, how do you stay in touch while avoid being annoying (I can’t find a perfect word to describe it)? What topics are you suggesting?

    • Sijie – Take a look at my new post on longer-term strategies. There’s no magic answer and it depends on the nature of your relationship. I’ll take an example of a potential mentor. Then I’d focus on a few potential areas. The first is events and activities in your industry or function. Get their opinion on new legislation, competition etc. Just ask a few good questions.

      Another topic that works is to have 1-3 specific things you are seeking advice on. A current sticky situation politically or a strategy problem on current project. Whatever, just have it be something you are genuinely interested in. People like to problem solve. I also ask people “what are the 3 biggest challenges you face right now?” or something like that to learn about their role (and potential needs).

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