Previously published in MWorld, The Journal of the American Management Association Volume 8, Number 3 Summer/Fall 2009
In today’s economic uncertainty, having a solid network can help your organization. However, it isn’t easy to build a network that will reap professional benefits.
C-Level Peer-to-Peer Networks
Peer-to-peer networking at the C-level is a challenge. Too often, any opportunity to network devolves into a situation where some C-level and non-C-level attendees feel compelled to take the opportunity to pitch, pose, and prose about the “opportunities,” products, services, resumes, and/or latest, greatest thing you absolutely must hear about. An invitation to attend a business or community event feels more like a reminder to have a root canal than a marketing/social engagement. You just know when you arrive, it will be a swarm of people wanting something from you and little—if any—opportunity for you to make real connections to other C-level executives, or to find one or two real business contacts that will lay the foundation for long-term business relationships.
Getting Competitive in Networking
While surviving a networking event has become a competitive event in and of itself, executives (and the businesses they lead) who recognize the tremendous competitive potential in business and social networks—the untapped referrals to customers, vendors, investors—will be able to tap into their significant growth potential. From the online networking communities to the more traditional business events and everyday meetings, networking is a powerful tool to expand the reach of any organization’s sales force and raise the organization’s public profile.
Business growth comes from relationships: with customers, vendors, investors, employees, and the community—those you know and those you seek to know. Relationships are the fabric and substance of every organization—how you live, get things done, and grow your business. Networking is a powerful tool for weaving new threads into that fabric–weaving new patterns and extending its length and width.
Recognition that success relies upon your ability to create, maintain, and grow relationships—the right ones—means that you must hone networking skills as finely as you do your other competitive skills. Networking requires strategy and focus. It also requires thinking of your contacts and network as valuable intellectual property that needs to be managed, just as you would other assets.
The Power of the Network
The power of relationships, leads, and prospects generated from relationship marketing (which is what networking is) are extremely effective in getting you, your product, business, and message to the target. So much more weight is given to doing business with someone you know or someone referred to you by those you know than from generic competitor advertising services. In order to capture the power of the network, to harness it, and to achieve growth from it, you must be a powerful networker capable of making the right connections and developing relationships, even from the most tenuous starts. You must be able to deflect the extraneous overtures that will not achieve your objectives without causing damage to your public profile (either personally or for your business) and focus with laser precision on those that will advance growth.
Word of Mouth — You Heard It First!
You’ll hear a great deal about—and may even actively be engaged in—networking (and referrals), but when it comes down to reality, you may not be as comfortable, knowledgeable, or effective at the processes and activities that comprise them as you want to be. After all, it is one thing to go out and mix and mingle for social reasons; it is another to attend an event for business reasons without seeming to be only out for “the connections” that can be made. Again, there are often aspects of the networking environment where participants (yes even at the C-level) are so focused on making a connection or a sale that rules of conduct are forgotten.
It’s essential to avoid this myopic focus on the “endgame,” as it actually prevents the growth and achievement of objectives by preventing an initial relationship overture from being accepted. If you are too intense at a networking event, all anyone sees is the “overeager” or “not in my league” or “here’s another one” warning light flashing–even if you do know what you are doing, you’ve blown it.
Manage Your Assets—Peer to Peer Knowledge
First and foremost, understand that networking is about making connections and finding people who share potential business interests. However, networking isn’t about immediate results and instantaneous invitations. It is not realistic to expect to be welcomed inside existing relationships after the first handshake. People have to get to know you beyond the handshake and cocktail conversation.
To grow your business through networking and referrals, it is important to be in “peer-to-peer mode.” This means that you recognize the relationships that others will need and benefit from, as well as the information and perspectives that you can bring to a relationship. You must be willing and able to open doors and make connections. If you aren’t comfortable in the networking environment, take the initiative and reach out and issue the invitation for lunch or to drop by your office for a tour of the new operations.
The advantage of being the driver of relationships is that you set the initial pace and can control more of the factors that lead toward a successful relationship. However, a few words of caution: You are seeking a peer-to-peer relationship; don’t expect a long-term power advantage in the relationship. When (not if) you get a reciprocal invitation from someone, be prepared to accept and be willing to consider offers that are within your strategic bounds of your networking plan and those just outside the lines. Speaking of networking plans …
Networking with a Strategic Plan
Networking is utilizing your connections and acquiring opportunities to be introduced. It is an open door through which you have an invitation to come in, look around, and see if a relationship makes sense and if there are common interests and shared perspectives. Networking is a first step in initiating a potential relationship.
Taking a strategic approach to networking makes perfect sense for C-level executives. In businesses, you formulate strategies for other aspects of marketing, so thinking strategically about your networking, and consequently your referral activities, is a logical extension of that practice. When you network, you need to be effective in your efforts. You want to use your time wisely and you want to meet people with whom you can form relationships—based on common interests and perspectives, synergistic potential, and complementary organizations or activities.
The time taken to network—in person or online—is invaluable. So, to use it to maximum effectiveness, from the strategic perspective, it is important to understand who will be attending events, who is participating in various forums, and who will be able to join an e-community, access your information, and participate in various activities, e.g., emails, chat rooms, blogs, web conferencing. The effectiveness of your networking will depend upon who you have the potential to make contact with. Keep in mind: when selecting events to attend, it is the quality of the contacts, not the quantity. You only need to make a few quality connections at each event that match your specific requirements, not hundreds of lower-quality quick contacts.
The Character of Networking Relationships—Who You Know and Who Knows You
Networking and referral relationships, especially those that will be of benefit long term, work both ways and are well respected and well guarded. Businesses value their client lists as intellectual property and individuals in the business community rightly place high value on the people in their circle of personal and business interaction. If you sometimes get the feeling that there is a secret handshake to get inside the “club,” you may be on to something.
Relationships are about that give-and-take bond that develops over time, through the exchange of information, working and socializing together. Getting to know one another over lunch, on the golf course, working side by side on community projects or as volunteers, doing business, and interacting online are how the “club” is formed. Most people tend to gravitate to others who make us comfortable and share common interests and ideas, and who can reciprocate in an exchange of “I can do this for you, and you can do this for me.”
Welcome to “The Club”
You want relationships that, in developing, create a comfort level, putting confidence behind referrals. These referrals build conversation and validation, and expand the network of people who know you and know your organization. Each point of contact in your network expands and throws out more points of contact that “know” you and your business at a relationship level. Those relationships are valued and well guarded. The network will protect itself and will not let in anyone it does not know and has not been properly vetted. The club’s handshake comes from the character of the networking and the relationships that have been built.
Ultimately, two of the biggest mistakes made in networking are moving too quickly in a relationship and not being strategic in your thinking, activities, and overall approach. Think strategically and advance your networking relationships at a pace that preserves the quality of the underlying pre-existing connections, while pursuing opportunities for growth.
Copyright ©2008 Lea A. Strickland