Fifteen years ago I learned how to network—the hard way. I decided to start my own professional services company serving local technology companies within my own backyard. My first morning on the job was spent culling my list of contacts to develop my calling strategy. After reviewing over 500 contacts, I discovered I had only two within a 100 mile radius of my new home office. Like the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, I had one mama-dollar and one papa-dollar and I needed them to make babies—fast!
Read all the books and attend all the workshops you want about networking. In my experience over the last fifteen years, great networking boils down to the consistent application of three habits. Call them disciplines, if you like, because they are easier to articulate than they are to reliably put into practice. But when you do, whether you’re networking for a new job or for a new client, I predict you’ll experience a breakthrough. That’s when they’ll become the three hardest networking habits you’ll ever love.
- Practice your ABCs. With apologies to the sales guys who are always closing, to experience breakthrough networking, you should think “Always Be Connecting.” This is hard habit numero uno of great networking. Too often, as with my story, we can have our heads so far down in our work that we don’t look up to truly connect with those around us, or just out of our line of sight. Even after I started my own company and began intentionally networking, I’d often get so buried in client activity that I wouldn’t make networking a priority. By the time the project was complete, I’d have lost any prospecting momentum. In consulting parlance that’s referred to as porpoising. As the Chinese proverb reminds us, “Dig a well before you’re thirsty.”
- Serve others. As mentioned above, great networking is more about connection than closing. Closing has to do with getting others to make your life better: How can they help you land a job? How can they hire your firm or buy your product? Instead, ask “How can I bring value to what they’re doing in a way that’s meaningful to them?” In my opinion, great networking is all about discovering the answer to that question. And that requires a lot of listening, probing and subordinating your agenda to theirs. I’ve had the opportunity to work on some pretty interesting projects by taking this approach—often much better than I would have proposed by pushing my agenda. When you boil it down, networking is about people. Connecting with them only to advance your interests is disingenuous. One of my clients, a professional services firm, maintains what they call a “referral balance sheet” to track lead sources from their referral network. They want to have positive equity on their balance sheet, always returning to others more than they receive for themselves. It’s a good principle in business and in life.
- Keep the ball. As much as possible, assume responsibility for follow-up and next steps. And do it right away, or as soon as practically possible. Your follow-through is a powerful signal that they matter to you. As in the game of golf, good follow-through is every bit as important as good contact with the ball. Failure places you squarely in the swelled ranks of the fly-by, self-serving, networking opportunist. Follow-up is not optional. That’s what makes this third habit so hard. Remind yourself, that every encounter has a follow-up. Send an email of thanks, or better, take the time to write a note. Link them to a book, or article, or another connection in your network that might be of interest to them. Be creative, but be consistent and take the initiative to stay connected long after the first meeting. Remember Habit #1? Set aside time to review your connections—particularly ones you haven’t seen in awhile—and ask, “How can I bring value to them today?”
As with any habit, it takes time to make these second-nature. Even after practicing these habits for the past fifteen years, I fail often and have to remind myself of the fundamentals. But in that time I’ve also grown to appreciate the value of them. They’ve become the hardest networking habits I’ve ever loved.
What are some networking habits you’ve found to be effective?