Often, I hear people lament the ineffectiveness of networking despite following all standard advice. In my recent webinar named, “Making Your Network Your Net Worth,” I asked the attendees why they network. I summarized their reasons into the following main categories:
To obtain market information so that they can stay current with the trends;
To share knowledge and experiences so that they can help others;
To get professional advice so that they can grow themselves;
To expand their connections so that they can find work or grow their business.
Facing enthusiastic participation from the audience, I asked the question one more time, “Why do you network?” I paused, then followed up with, “Is your networking strategic enough?”
I know how people feel when they hear the word “strategic.” It is overly used. However, it is also overly misunderstood. When a business is being strategic, it means that the business considers its mission, vision, goals, risks and potentials when taking actions that will have a longer-term impact on the organization. Being strategic with one’s networking means that professionals should incorporate their big picture thinking about the results that they want to achieve and focus their limited networking time on the actions that make the most sense. In my opinion, it comes in the following steps:
The initial step of any effective networking strategy always starts with a deep understanding of your “Why.” It also needs to be “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound). Suppose your reason is broad, such as, “I am looking for an entry-level position after graduation” or, as vague as, “I want to grow my career by learning from others.” In that case, the result often will be disappointing. Let me illustrate the thought process using my own examples:
My Job Search Example:
Understand the "Why" - In my last year of university studies, I knew the type of work that I wanted to do but I was unsure of choosing between two career fields. I needed more information. I believed that getting a promising career started takes systematic planning and a phased approach. Instead of jumping right into talking to any people who have work experience and ask for advice, I defined my networking purpose as “Understand which career field is a better choice for me and zero in on the steps of getting work in this field in the next three months.”
Define the "Who" - After understanding my networking objective, I then identified the need to hear from 5 - 7 people working in the fields that I had an interest in. Ideally, these were professionals who were at different stages of their careers. Thus, I could hear various perspectives about the career trajectory. Additionally, it would help me build mentorship relationships if I could maintain contact with these people.
Plan the "How" - Given my limited connections and networking skills back then, I asked myself, “What’s the easiest way to meet these people with whom I need to connect?” Then I answered myself, start with people I already knew! I thought about asking my professors and advisors for referrals. I also thought about the people who I met through my part-time and volunteer work.
Deliver the "What" - Luckily, I made a great impression on an outside consultant at my part-time job. Over coffee, she gave me a lot of valuable advice. We developed a great relationship. It was fortunate that she even took me to an event and introduced me to the exact people I needed to connect with. Ultimately, I made my career choice and maintained and expanded those relationships.
My Entrepreneurship Example:
Understand the "Why" - Fast forward to less than six years ago, I was an immature entrepreneur, wanting to establish a Management Consultancy in a challenging economic landscape. Naively thinking that building a small business brand is achieved by announcing the business to as many people as possible, I piled up a large gasoline bill by jumping into all kinds of networking occasions. On the surface, it seemed that I achieved a lot. However, after a year, I realized that 95% of these efforts were fruitless. In the wake of the ineffective results, I refined my networking purpose to “Identify who the right audience is for my business, and how to reach them by September 30.”
Define the "Who" - Since revising my networking objective, I identified the people who I needed to connect with were 8 - 10 entrepreneurs within several geographical regions who had gone down the path that I was navigating. Ideally, these entrepreneurs were at different stages of their business, including those who have closed their operations.
Plan the "How" - I searched and asked around about the popular (online) events and professional training sessions that certain groups of entrepreneurs frequent. I practiced how I would approach the targeted people and prepared specific questions to ask.
Deliver the "What" - I subsequently created a plan to attend 3 - 4 of these events monthly and followed through. By going to these events consistently, my questions were gradually answered, and I became clearer about who I needed to follow up with and who else I needed to connect with. With those who I maintained the connections with, I also asked them for referrals when appropriate.
Eventually, I was invited to these events, first as an attendee and then as a speaker.
Evaluate the Efforts -
Over the years, I developed the habit of tracking, analyzing, and reflecting on my networking efforts. That helped me to understand where I should focus my limited networking time and energy going forward. It also helped me learn how to advance my networking skills on different occasions and encounter different types of people.
Networking is a critical business and life skill. It can happen at any time and anywhere. Often, I hear people lament the ineffectiveness of networking despite following all standard advice. The question to consider is - “Is Your Networking Strategic Enough?”
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