Business Networking Strategy Part 3

In my last several posts (Part 1 – Strategy , Part 2 – Tactics) we’ve covered what I think of as short term networking strategy and tactics. We used a job search as the classic example. Think of this as “the sprint”.

Now let’s get into how to build longer term healthy habits that can help in a variety of ways. Here you need endurance. Think “marathon”.  

All of the prior advice applies (obviously). Here I’ll be focused on the things that change when you’re talking years rather than months for the time-line.

We can call it “networking for life”.  I can imagine a Tony Robbins style infomercial selling my series of compelling DVDs. The secrets unveiled will transform your life. I just need you to give me your money…or read on 🙂

One illustration of how little we focus on good habits and head-down we can get in our day to day life is an experience I just had updating my linked in profile. I was consistently asked “am I looking for a job or ready for a change?” by friends and colleagues.

No. I’m happy with my job, but am working to stay on top of it and not let it drift. I also figure up to date info on my profile is potentially useful to others. It’s the same idea on the relationship side. Harvey Mackay wrote a whole book on “digging your well before you’re thirsty”.  I use the term all the time when suggesting to people some of what I’ll get into below. That my maintenance activity was seen as signaling change by my network says a lot about where people put this in their priority list.

The point is to not ignore staying connected until you need something. That is more parasitic than mutualistic and won’t inspire commitment from others.

But I have a good job, why should I bother?

1 – It’s interesting and thought provoking. For me, people are fascinating and that on its own often is worth the effort. You learn a lot. I need to hear other people’s perspective to challenge my own and to illuminate other industries, careers, environments that I haven’t experienced. It forces you to think from different perspectives…and to listen.

I am a self-confessed talker, so for me it’s also a way to “think out loud” and get feedback much more quickly and efficiently than in any other form I can think of.

2 – It can create opportunities. In a prior post on how well do you know someone, I talk about the importance of people pro-actively thinking of you when a question or opportunity arises. I think of this as generating “optionality”.  

In my own career, I have been fortunate to be invited to apply for a number of jobs. In each case, either someone thought of me and suggested the fit to a potential employer, or the potential boss had worked with me in the past and recruited me. I had to compete with other candidates, but was made aware of the opportunity and got “short-listed” from the start based on past relationships, performance or reputation.

It’s intuitive that we hire people we are confident in. Studies bare out the fact that prior experience or shared connections dramatically improve the likelihood of getting a position. (We even did a 6 Sigma project on placement in my old strategy group at 3M. The VAST majority of placements out were through prior working relationships. The result was even “statistically significant!)

There are other opportunities beyond jobs. Speaking engagements, consulting opportunities, non-profit boards, advice giving and other introductions are ones that immediately come to mind.

So if people can think of you and (more importantly) articulate why you’re useful, the odds of good things finding you go way up.

PS – What makes you think you’ll still have a job in 6 months? Bad things can happen to good people. Strong relationships are insurance.

3 – It keeps you well informed. Knowledge is power, particularly professionally. Knowing what’s going on, who’s been promoted, what companies are planning etc are all useful bits of intelligence. They also make you more interesting to others.

4 – It makes it easier to get things done. We are not islands. The broader and deeper your connections, the easier it is to get information, approvals, help, advice etc.

5 – It makes you more valuable. Some of you are smart enough to be a brain on a stick, but most of us aren’t rugged individualists generating value. Part of your career power is your network. How many people will take your meeting just because it’s you asking? How many people will actively help you? If the number is high, you have clear organizational value. If the number is low, you’re stuck. This plays out in everything from job searches to salary discussions and how quickly you’re able to get things done.

6 – Building and maintaining social ties is good for you. Research consistently shows that people with strong relationships (not necessarily many) are happier and live longer than those who are more isolated. Seriously.

Probably about 83 million other reasons too, but this is what I can think of right now. This is like exercise for your health in that if you could prescribe it as medicine for your career it would be a blockbuster drug.

Note: I will stipulate an assumption that you are interesting, talented and capable (as all my discerning readers are).. If you are immature, unprofessional etc., broadening your network may not be a good thing. Think “better to stay silent and have me think you a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”.  

So what habits should I be developing?

1 – The right mindset.

1a. The first thing to recognize is that this is a long term process, not a goal directed enterprise. If you build an effective network it can assist in all sorts of unanticipated ways over time. But like a healthy garden, it needs tending with new plantings and fertilizer (organic compost preferred to B*****T).

1b. I’ve already mentioned a sense of mutualism or “guanzi” repeatedly. I mean it.

2 – Consistency. Whenever I tell people potential targets for networking, I start at something like 50-100 meetings per year. Most people find that number daunting. But is 1-2 meetings per week that intimidating a target? You have to work at it. Any progress you make beyond zero is good, so set stretch goals.

3 – Setting goals and tracking your activity. If you don’t do this, you’ll never make progress. As they say, If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it.

3a. Create a few meaningful categories to track and create a little granularity when you self-assess periodically.

While I was at 3M, I wanted to develop and maintain an internal network. 3M is a large, matrixed company and a broad set of relationships is important. I also wanted to avoid being pigeon-holed and worked to maintain external relationships. Within both broad categories, I had separate goals and tracked new connections versus existing to maintain visibility on how well I was both building and maintaining my network.

I can imagine lots of useful categories. Go back to your broad strategy from Part 1 and pick a mix of organizations, industries, functions or other that are interesting to you.

3b. I’d also reintroduce the idea of levels of connection from part 1. You want to keep relationships warm where you have the time to, but recognize as your network grows, it’s hard to stay actively in touch with a huge number of people. Some you’ll want to see frequently while for others, perhaps once a year or occasional emails will suffice.

4 – Being useful to others. I’ve talked about having others in mind. Over the long term, this means keeping an open mind and trying to be creative. Actually have people in mind and do what you can to be of service.

In some ways, you have to decide how you want to be useful. Many things make us interesting or useful: expertise (industry, function etc.), who you know (number and quality), having an interesting perspective or soundness of advice all appeal, as do other characteristics.

If it’s early in your career you may have to rely on pluck and energy, but you can become very useful even with limited experience. Be more up to date on the literature in your field, be willing to take on some “church work” for people you respect and want to cultivate. Be creative, but there are often non-obvious ways to be helpful.

In the end, do you actually get something done for others on a consistent basis? If you do for an ever-expanding circle, you’ll find things happening for you.

5 – Ask for reasonable support. One of the purposes of a network is to actually receive support. Don’t be afraid to ask. One of the best ways to help bond people to you is to actually ask for help. The giving helps others identify with you and become rooters.

Another way to build “increasing returns” in your network is to use your relationships to help others. So often your ask will be for someone else.

Just to close out the thought, it’s critical to develop the right long term habits if you want to build a positive network to support career and personal happiness and success.

As always, let me know your thoughts or questions. I’m sure I’ve missed something.

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