Networking is not a dirty word!

twitter blog post June

Networking is not a dirty word!

By RDA Murray CEO Edwina Hayes

People are hardwired for connection. It is the core of our existence as a social species and with meaningful connection we find fulfilment and a sense of achieving our purpose. “It's not what you know, it's who you know," or so the saying goes. We often hear about the importance of ‘networking,’ but the very idea can make some of us break out in a cold sweat!

Being mindful of why you might want to “network” is a key to unlocking easy connections with people. If you know what you want to get out of a connection and why you are approaching a particular person, then you have something to talk about.

Putting all social anxiety aside, networking is just a way of getting to know people better, of finding how they can help you and how you might help them in turn. Humans are highly social creatures, so it seems counterintuitive that we might think of networking so negatively. Afterall, everyone you meet has a wealth of knowledge, skills and insight, so networking can help you in your career and your personal life too. I’ve long felt it’s because people associate networking with being pushy or simpering and shy away because they don’t want to be thought of as this type of person.

Networking is essential, especially in our modern, connected world. In fact, research proves that effective professional networks can lead to more job and business opportunities, increased knowledge and understanding, innovation, higher quality of work and increased job satisfaction.

Personally, I rather enjoy networking. It takes common sense and commitment to focussing on solving the problem rather than your own worries and insecurities. The best way for anyone to network is usually simply to play to your natural strengths. You’re probably already doing it! But if you’re not sure, or you’re looking for some tips, there are a few simple ways to begin.

If you find yourself at a function where you realise you should ‘network’ you might have at least two motivations. You might have something specific in mind you want to solve or progress and you might also want to build your network to make it easier to solve future questions.

Start with who you know: It’s been said that most people know at least another 200 people. So, starting close to home, who do you already know and who might they be able to introduce you to that might help you answer your questions? Being introduced to a new person through a mutual friend or acquaintance is the easiest way to meet new contacts and already establishes that you have something in common, even if it’s just excellent taste in friends!

And return the favour: You’re not the only one to break out in a cold sweat at the thought of networking! If you know someone who could be a useful contact for someone in your network, introduce them and watch all your networks expand.

Know thyself… preferably in 30 words or less: Meeting someone new? Learn to describe yourself concisely and leave out the waffle. Meeting someone for the first time? Look them in the eye. Smile. Shoulders back. “Hi, my name is Edwina Hayes, I’m CEO of Regional Development Australia Murray, I work to support economic and social development in Southern NSW.” There, that wasn’t so painful now, was it?

Think about your body language: I’ve heard it said that “your expression is the most important thing you wear.” If you’re feeling nervous, maybe a bit insecure, it’s easy to adopt a defensive position, standing with your arms crossed and a slight frown or to be looking like a deer in headlights. But to be frank that only makes you look unapproachable and it’s unlikely to encourage much social interaction. The worst part is you go home without making new connections and all your negative feelings about networking are reinforced. The truth is most people size you up visually within the first few seconds. So use that time to be your best self, stand up straight, smile, maintain good eye contact. Don’t scan the room when you’re talking to someone, it makes it look like you’re not interested in who you’re speaking to!

Tips for the introverted: Not everyone is outgoing and that is absolutely fine! Networking doesn’t mean you have to turn yourself inside out like a sock, or pretend to be someone that you’re not. If you’re a little (or a lot!) on the shy side you can still network effectively and you can do so by playing to your strengths. I have often found introverts are excellent at developing strong one-on-one relationships, so don’t expect yourself to ‘work the room’ and build connections with everyone in a single day. Instead, plan to speak with a few people, do some homework, find out who might be in attendance and come armed with some questions for them. One or two good connections that you can nurture and develop is better than 100 business cards and no follow through.

Work that queue: Have to wait in line for the bar or the buffet? Take the opportunity to chat with the person in front or behind you, sort of like a networking version of speed dating! Let’s face it, you’ve already got something in common, even if it’s just mutual desire for a glass or wine or a canape. Want to start a conversation? Ask a few polite questions, “what do you do?,” “what’s your favourite part of your job?” or even "what are you hoping to get out of this event?” can help break the ice. And if you don’t enjoy speaking with them you can scurry off after you’ve got your food or drink.

Listen: We might think of communication as just being about how we express ourselves, but it’s even more important to know how to listen. In his 1936 book ‘How to win friends & influence people’, Dale Carnegie says: “if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.” This advice is as sound now as it was when it was written. Despite this, lots of people don’t actually listen to what others are saying. If you are seeking to make a connection and have asked another person for advice or their opinion, make sure you give them the space to offer it.

Everyone is important: It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, people don’t have to be Executives or CEOs to be worth knowing! Don’t ever fall into the trap of discounting people based on their age, gender or job title. Most people have interesting skills, experience or connections that you’d never find out about if you dismissed them without making an effort. And remember, the world changes very quickly, today’s Graduate might be tomorrow’s CEO. A network made up of all sorts can solve all sorts of problems!

Be prepared: The Scouts motto applies to networking too, and we should always “Be prepared!” If you’ve got business cards, remember to bring them with you, and if you don’t at least carry a notebook or use your phone contacts list and notes apps.

How to insert yourself into a group with dignity: Gracefully manoeuvring yourself into an already conversing group requires some skill… and courage! If a conversation is already underway listen carefully, look interested, wait for an opening and ask a question about what is being discussed.

You must give to receive: Want to build a connection with someone new? Find a way to help them out. Be helpful to others, share an opportunity, an insight or even an interesting resource, start your relationship with an act of kindness. The best networkers I’ve ever met are so successful in building good relationships because they genuinely enjoy helping others. To build good networks it helps to have a generous spirit, and sometimes you will give much more than you receive. Good deeds and kindness are usually remembered and I’ve also found that if these generous souls ever do need anything from their network, people almost trip over themselves to help them out. Change your thinking from “what’s in it for me” to “how can I help” and watch your networks flourish.

Don’t get hit by the karma bus: Building trust is vital if you want to grow strong networks, and it’s impossible to build trust without personal integrity. Need convincing? Think about how we all view people who don’t take responsibility for their actions or admit their mistakes. Do it too often and all your integrity is lost. Eventually, people of dubious integrity usually find that the only friends they have left are others of similarly low integrity. Needless to say, this isn’t the sort of network you wish to cultivate!

Remember your manners: You were probably taught you to say please and thank you, so don’t forget! Always thank your connection for the time and help they have given and see if you are able to assist them in any way.

Follow-up: If you go to the effort of networking, but never follow up, you’re just wasting your time. If you meet a new contact, within a day or so send them a short email reminding them of who you are and what you discussed. This helps establish your connection and opens up a line for future conversation. Try to end your conversation with something like, “If you need anything, please reach out to me.” And don’t leave things there, check in every now and again to keep the relationship alive.

So, next time you’re invited to a networking opportunity I’d really urge you to make the most of it. Afterall, you could meet someone really interesting who might help set you on a path to new ideas, experiences and opportunities.