Let me start by saying that I am not an extrovert, and yet I’ve built my career on networking. It’s opened doors for me, given me critical advice, and when I became an entrepreneur, developed millions of dollars in business for my company.
There’s a common assumption that to be a good networker you need to be a sales type, someone who works the room and feeds on the energy. I’ve found that the majority of great networkers don’t fall into that bucket. Business development is rarely something that we’re trained for, and until we become the rainmaker, we may never have dreamed we’d be doing.
Networking is a critical skill for leaders. It’s virtually impossible for others in the company to have the same type of access that we do to other top executives, and that access is vital to the company’s ability to keep its pulse on the marketplace and generate sales. Most of us already know we should be doing it more, but we don’t make the time because it’s often uncomfortable.
So for all you analytical types out here, the subject matter experts, the operationally minded, or even the just plain shy – take heart. Those skills can all actually work for you. You too can be a great networker, and here’s how.
Use a broad definition of networking. It’s not just about generating sales. Networking yields market intelligence, business advice, new hires, and leadership guidance, to name a few. You can network with former and current customers, business associates, service providers, and even competitors. Many people lament having to find time for business development “in addition to my real job.” I would argue that as a leader, networking IS your real job. When you start looking at it as a critical competence of your company – allowing you to make connections for your clients and be up to speed on their industry – it becomes a different problem to solve.
Honor reciprocity. There is a currency to good networking relationships, or a give and take. Sometimes you give me leads and I give you leads. Other times it’s different but equally valuable, such as I give you information and you give me introductions. It doesn’t matter if you are transferring the same thing; it just has to be balanced and valuable to both parties. When someone does something for you, keep it in mind and be looking for the time you can pay them back. It might not be immediate, but should come eventually. That’s what keeps good networks alive. If you are newly starting and you don’t have much to offer, don’t forget the power of showing appreciation and following up to let the other person know what became of their advice or introductions. People are willing to help when they feel it’s appreciated.
Select a few networking organizations and get deeply involved. In most cities, you could spend every morning and night at a different networking event. You get much more bang for your time if you pick a few quality organizations that directly touch your market, and even better, your specific customer base. Get involved on a committee or a board so you can build real relationships beyond exchanging business cards. Just make sure you make the time to honor your commitment or you can do more damage to your reputation than good.
Attend only high-value networking events and make them worth it. That said, it is helpful to attend some networking events, just select the few that count. Most people envision a room of strangers they have to foist themselves upon. First of all, if you’re involved on a committee of an organization, then that group’s networking events will be filled with people you know. It’s much easier to enter a room where there are friendly faces, and you benefit from introducing each other around. Further, you can often save yourself a lot of lunches by catching up with multiple folks in your network at one place.
If you don’t know anyone at the event, see if you can take a colleague to play wing man, which can make it more comfortable. Instead of trying to meet as many people as possible, focus on having quality conversations with those you do meet.
Constantly evaluate your networking activities. Your time is a limited commodity and you must be vigilant about spending it wisely. On a regular basis assess what you’re getting out of your networking groups or relationships to determine where you may need to make changes. If you are sitting on a professional organization’s committee to get business and you haven’t gotten any, then perhaps it’s not the right use of your time no matter how much you like the people. Networks should evolve and change as your business grows. Never be afraid to call up people who seem out of your league. I am constantly surprised at how generous people can be with their time and advice. People are often honored to be asked their opinion. And on that note, be generous with your own time when people are referred to you. I have found business and help to come from many unexpected places.
Have a system to stay in touch. This is where analytical types have a leg up. You need a system for making sure you get in touch with your network on a regular basis. Keep a good contact system that you regularly look through. I supplement mine with a running Call List of people whose names I add when I think of them. Then on a regular basis I work through the list by scheduling lunches, coffees, or just sending an email. Don’t just contact people when you need something. Sometimes you need to approach a networking meeting with what you can give rather than just what you receive.
Finally, from me, a personal thank you out there to all the people in my network who have helped me over the years. Gratitude abounds.
Author’s Note: Content originally appeared in author’s column on Entrepreneur.com