This morning, I had an interesting conversation with a couple of colleagues on the vexed subject of “networking” – in the sense of making connections with people (of which I know a little), rather than building an IT network (of which I know less than nothing!).
Networking is one of those things which as business people we are all supposed to be very keen on and committed to. Judging from the number of courses, seminars, breakfast briefings and evening classes on the subject, it is also something which lots of us struggle with. And to be fair, although I know a number of folk who are very good at it, I rarely meet people who relish it. In fact, I know quite a few who are masters at finding a good excuse to put it off.
I used to be one of them. The very mention of networking would cause knots in my stomach. Images of awkward introductions and low-quality small talk would rise like shadowy seamonsters in my mind. I would suddenly become utterly convinced that some minor administrative task (perhaps sorting paper clips into neat piles of 20?) was more important that whatever networking event loomed in front of me. Now, that may have been an extreme reaction, but I know I’m not alone.
Why does networking fill so many of us with, if not dread, at least a slightly sinking feeling? It attracts its fair share of ghastly management jargon – “touching base”, scheduling some “catch up time”, “having a one-on-one” (euggh) – but that alone really doesn’t explain it.
For me, it was the pressure of having to sell that I hated. My feeling was that any networking opportunity in which I did not secure a concrete commitment to do business was a poor show; and if I failed to secure an immediate follow-up meeting, then it was an abject failure. Needless to say, I failed a lot.
The breakthrough came when I took that pressure off. Rather than trying to sell anything, I just chatted a bit about what I do. More importantly, I listened to what the other person said and, where I could, reflected honestly from my own perspective on what I’d heard.
I made this change because I started to reflect on how I liked to be “networked” with. I realised that I much preferred to do business with people who got to know me, and who listened to me and responded with real thought and interest. I hardly ever gave anyone business who was trying a hard sell, or was desperate for an immediate commitment to meeting them again.
Does it work? You bet it does. Not necessarily immediately. And not necessarily with the person you spoke to – very often, it’s a contact of theirs to whom your name gets passed on. But it works.
This approach to networking has two big advantages. First, you will stand out favourably from the mass of people desperate to sell. And second, you draw on a skill set which pretty much all of us have to a greater or lesser extent – making friends. It’s just curious that it took me so long to realise that being friendly is a great business skill as well as a life skill!