Building Relationships for Mutual Benefit
"It's not what you know, it's who you know that counts." That may sound unfair or calculating, but think of it this way: if no one knows about your skills, interests and projects, who's going to help you to make the most of them?
People with robust business networks tend to get more things done, more effectively. They learn from others with different strengths, and they use their contacts to help them achieve success in their careers.
The ability to develop and maintain a network of "business friendships" is a critical skill for every career professional.
Many people dislike networking or find it uncomfortable, but it needn't be difficult or a chore. It can be enjoyable and rewarding, and you're probably already part of more networks than you realize. You just need to recognize the benefits of networking, and build from there.
What Is Networking?
Networking is the process of sharing knowledge, information and contacts with others for mutual benefit. Good networking is always a two-way process.
Calling on someone in your network involves "using" them, but not exploiting them in a negative way. So long as you're prepared to help others out when you're in a position to do so, most people will respond positively to a request for help.
Networking allows you to exchange information quickly and easily, and so increase your efficiency and effectiveness. It can also open up new opportunities for collaboration and career development.
Let's look at five benefits of networking:
1. Do Your Job Better
Information flows around organizations through formal and informal communication networks. So those who enjoy collaborative relationships with people in other departments can generally achieve more.
For example, having people in the accounts and IT support teams that you can approach for help and information will likely speed up your work. And being available to help others can establish your reputation as an "extra miler."
2. Benefits to Your Organization
Organizational and team structures change constantly. In this environment, your network of relationships with people inside and outside your organization or team become more valuable than ever. They can help to "steady the ship" in turbulent times, and to break down silos.
3. Managing Stakeholders
Managing stakeholders is an essential part of running successful projects, whether they're formal or informal, large or small. If you've already established good relationships with your stakeholders through networking, they are more likely to help you, and to support what you're trying to achieve.
4. Developing Your Personal Brand
Volunteering for projects and activities is a great way to gain the experience you need to get ahead in your career. Having a broad personal network will give you many more opportunities to do this, and to enhance your personal brand.
For example, you might hear through your network about plans for a new project within your area of expertise. You could offer your services in some way, and this would likely be appreciated by the project manager, and give you experience of something that interests and challenges you.
5. Boosting Your Career
Networking can help you to advance your career. More jobs are filled through networking than through advertising. So having a network of contacts who are familiar with your accomplishments and interests is invaluable if you are looking to make a career move. In fact, if you work freelance, networking is essential.
How to Network
There are many different ways to network, from "working the room" at conferences to building virtual networks on LinkedIn or other social media channels.
The following six steps will guide you through the basic process.
1. Write Down Your Objectives
Look at what you hope to achieve from networking, and focus on that before you embark on any networking activity.
Maybe you're looking for a particular piece of information, or you want to form a network of specialized contacts. This will help you to decide who you need to speak to, and what you need to say.
2. Decide on Your "Offer"
Remember, networking is a two-way process. You'll find it much easier to make high-quality connections if you have something interesting and useful to offer.
This will differ for different groups of people. You can be sure that suppliers will be delighted to network with you! But you can also be sure that potential customers will steer clear of you if all you do is try to sell to them.
So, consider other ways you can be interesting to them. Do you have industry knowledge or insights that people might find useful? What particular skills have you got to offer?
Remember to be open and generous in your approach – people may consider you to be selfish if you're transactional in the way that you share information. A measure of self-disclosure can help. It's also important to be polite, and to exhibit good manners during any networking approach. Our article on Good Manners in the Office can help you with this.
3. Map Your Network
Write down a list of "communities" and individuals with whom you have – or would like to have – professional contacts. These might include:
- Your department or team.
- Other departments or teams in your organization.
- Former colleagues or clients.
- Local business organizations.
- Professional organizations.
- Voluntary groups, such as a school board.
For each set of people, brainstorm what you can offer, and how you could make yourself interesting to them. Also, get a clear idea of the benefits that you could gain from the relationship.
Don't assume that potential contacts in junior positions have nothing to offer. They may have valuable skills and contacts.
4. Identify Gaps
Go through your list of objectives and your offer to ensure that your network is as strong as possible. Look for gaps by asking yourself:
- Will your network or proposed network help you to meet your objectives?
- Are you making the most of what you have to offer?
- Which communities and individuals will most value what you have to offer?
- Do you need to widen your contacts in a particular field?
For example, you might have a great network in your current organization, but if you want to gain wider industry recognition, you may need to network through professional associations or interest groups.
5. Plan Networking Actions
Networking opportunities have traditionally been face-to-face, and industry conferences are still important. For these situations, ensure that you'll be able to talk about what you do, what your organization does, and what you're interested in learning and offering. Developing an elevator pitch can help, though it's best to avoid the "hard sell."
However, technology has opened up a whole set of new ways to network. LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, for example, all offer opportunities to connect with people with similar interests and experience, and to build networks based on them.
One way to do this is to grasp the opportunities they offer for exchanging content with your contacts. You could run your own blog, for example, or publish videos online. You could also get involved in online forums, making regular and informed comments.
Whichever networking actions you plan, consider what you'll need to learn about the communities and people you'll encounter, how to go about meeting them, and how you'll help them to get to know you.
See our articles, Using LinkedIn Effectively, Maintaining a Positive Online Reputation, and Using Twitter for Work, for more information on growing your professional network, establishing trust with those in your network, and improving your online reputation.
6. Be an Effective Network "Hub"
What you get out of networking largely depends on what you put into it. The more networks you're part of, the more you become a hub that people can turn to. This builds a network of people around you who will be eager to help you out in return. The key to making this happen is to build rapport.
Ensure that your relationship-building conversations are two-way and evenly balanced. Ideally, you should know as much about the other person by the end of any conversation as they know about you.
But don't let your conversation become a sales pitch! Following up on initial meetings is vital. It helps to establish your credibility as a contact. At the end of a networking conversation, exchange details or drop the other person a message or email.
Make a note of where and when you met, and of any points that will help you to remember what they do, and how you connected.
Networking is an effective way to achieve and learn more in today's working environment.
Formal and informal networks can help you to do your current job better, and to open up future opportunities. They also offer the chance to enhance your personal brand.
Networking should always offer the chance of mutual benefit, so look out for opportunities to help others, and be sure to attract new opportunities for yourself.
Use social media platforms to develop virtual networks, and hone your interpersonal skills to make the most of any chances that you get to network face-to-face.