Truth be told, I am not a natural networker. But as an entrepreneur and executive recruiter, my business very much depends on my ability to get out of my comfort zone as well as my office and network. And then network some more.
I used to reproach myself when leaving an event without having spoken to and obtained business cards from a majority of fellow attendees. This was until I started to investigate the art of networking. Henceforth I learned what is perhaps the most important piece of advice: When it comes to networking, remember that it’s quality over quantity.
[Related: Read about how to avoid feeling speechless and awkward]
Don’t do this
I was recently at a function and was taken aback by a woman who was systematically going around the room indiscriminately handing out business cards. She stopped by the group I was chatting with, said a quick hello and distributed a lovely business card in full color with a photo.
Clearly, she had not read the literature on networking. There was no connection and no interest in reciprocity. It is likely that most of her business cards went straight into the recycling bin.
What would have been infinitely more successful would have been for her to slow down and try to get to know a person or two. Understand who they were and whether they might have something in common or perhaps if she should have been so lucky, some opportunity to do business together. This would have required engaging in conversation and actually listening to the other person. She would have given away less business cards but perhaps walked away with actual potential. (And incidentally, she would have produced less waste in the process!)
Networking when done well involves having a meaningful conversation and consequently a connection with someone. A conversation where both people speak and learn about each other. It is not overtly goal oriented although having objectives is fine. It is best when there is the potential for some mutual benefit.
For example, Person A says: my firm can use your services and Person B says: great, let me introduce you to my brother who is further along in the same line of work as you and he can give you some advice. Or person B can also say: thank you so much, how can I be helpful to you as well? Everyone wants to feel like their efforts are appreciated even if there is no immediate specificity to the reciprocation.
[Related: 6 Tips for Improving Your People Skills]
My LinkedIn strategy
One of my favorite networking practices takes advantage of the power of LinkedIn. Whenever appropriate and this is often because it is so effective and fun, I pull out my iPhone and while talking to the person and with their permission I connect with them on LinkedIn. Right there, in real time. Two major reasons why this is so great. One is, of course, because nothing like the present to cement the connection and make sure you stay in touch. Secondly and more importantly, you get to see who you and the person you are speaking with know in common. Nothing like discussing mutual friends, family members or colleagues to break the ice and create a personal connection.
Of course, networking is not limited to those infrequent events we all attend. Rather, it is an ongoing activity that is best practiced in advance of any specific needs. In other words, we should be networking deliberately and frequently so that when we do need to ask for a favor or an introduction we already have someone in our network who can be helpful. That is, don’t wait until you need the relationship to build it, be proactive and get to know pertinent people without the pressure of an ask or necessity.
Networking doesn’t have to be painful or feel like work. When we make a conscious effort to do it well — and do it often — it can actually became an everyday business practice.