Until recently, I had always assumed that most people hated networking. You see it all over the web, in forums, discussion boards and on websites. Networking is like the business version of the “boogeyman”, something to be feared, something that haunts your dreams and summons nightmares.
The surprising thing (at least for me) is that there is little if any, real research to back up this “fact”. The only actual data I could find is research by Dr. Ivan Misner, which actually points to the opposite being true; in other words, most people don’t mind networking. In all fairness, however, a single study hardly proves anything conclusively. However, it is an interesting insight.
However, even if that statistic is true, I know that I don’t like networking and it is obvious, just from a cursory glance at written opinions on this topic, that there are enough people who despise networking to make the topic of networking aversion worth looking at.
Before I launch into my discussion of the subject matter, I must clarify that the “networking” dealt with below refers to the act of meeting people face-to-face at events or elsewhere, in contrast to the more general meaning of “networking” as the long-term nurturing of relationships to form an array of reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships aimed at facilitating business (and even personal) success.
Understanding WHY we hate networking
In order to find ways to ameliorate this common negativity towards networking, we need to ask “Why? Why do so many people hate networking?”
Luckily, some nice folks at Harvard Business School have provided us with some insight into this question.
In an article on the Harvard Business School website, Francesca Gino concludes that people feel “dirty” or “unclean” when networking, citing as a reason for this the finding that “…professional networking increases feelings of inauthenticity and immorality …”.
According to the study cited in the article above, the first problem many people have with networking stems from the proactivity of attending an event or setting up a meeting. It is a deliberate action that smacks of forcing ourselves into the space and attention of another uninvited. It is a one-sided initiative that you fear is intrusive, like missionaries knocking on your door to spread their religious message or pesky salespeople accosting you on the street and trying to sell you an “amazing” new skincare balm all the way from the shores of the Dead Sea.
This is far different from the “natural” spontaneity and mutual eagerness usually associated with meeting friends, where there is a total absence of any sense that there are hidden agendas.
I don’t want to be selfish or a user
A second issue that many of the networking-haters face is an unconscious awareness that we want to get something out of the person we are meeting. There is, we suspect, a selfish purpose behind the intended interaction with the people we network with, even if that purpose is somewhat nebulous.
Deep within our psyche, we suspect that we are only meeting others to further our own aims and goals, which means that we are exhibiting those traits that most people despise; insincerity, deceitfulness, dishonesty and all the rest of the “bad” attributes. Hence the feelings of being “slimy” or “devious”, which we naturally recoil from.
When we express interest in their lives, interests, and businesses, are we genuinely interested in what they are saying or are we putting on a show, a ruse designed simply to trick them into thinking we care about anything they say so we can get something out of them? We fear that as much as we want to believe that we are engaging with them honestly and cordially, an undercurrent of insincerity is tainting our very interaction with them, confirming our worst fears about ourselves.
The root of our aversion may just be plain old shyness
However, for me personally, my shyness has been my greatest barrier to networking, and I think that for a lot of shy and introverted people, the problem may lie in their inability to engage with others in the way they would like to (or rather, the way they have been told they should), leaving to them doubting themselves and confirming their sense of inadequacy. Doubtless, all of the abovementioned guilt issues also form a deeper and less obvious sub-layer, adding to the “layer cake” of discomfort.
The fact is that if you hate being around strangers (whether for business or in a purely social setting), and you find interacting with them painful, always ending up hovering around the outskirts of social interactions watching the action rather than getting stuck into it, then you are shy. I am shy, painfully so. It sucks and it makes networking, especially at events where you are surrounded by strangers, really difficult. If you are shy, I sympathize.
Related to shyness is introversion, which results in a person not being as acutely anti-social as a shy person, but still causes the introvert to recoil from networking due to their aversion to crowds and need for solitude and the serenity that comes with it.
That said, there are ways to counter shyness and introversion so as to learn to become more comfortable networking. Anna Runyan in this article on themuse.com, suggests 6 ways to overcome networking jitters:
- Find a conference buddy.
- Talk to attendees who are obviously out of their element.
- Ask questions and listen.
- Challenge yourself.
This is all great advice. For a more comprehensive list of suggested actions that you can take to help you overcome at least some of the factors restraining you in social settings, as well as a discussion of shyness and introversion in general, take a look at this article.
Why networking is essential
The unfortunate thing is that although so many people hate networking, most still recognize its importance. This fact adds needless stress to their lives. It’s like visiting the dentist. Few people look forward to going, but we all know we need to as the consequences are not going are more unpleasant than the discomfort of going (tooth decay and root canals in the case of not seeing the dentist regularly, sub-par to mediocre business performance in the case of not building up a network properly).
Networking is a fundamental element of success and building and nurturing relationships with business associates and connections can make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
Networking is about more than just business success, however. It impacts every facet of life as the self-confidence and sense of belonging that stems from your belonging to a network can help you redesign yourself to become more professional, more driven, more compassionate, more caring and a better person all around.
The power of networking
Ask anyone who has a strong network and they’ll tell you stories of how their connections opened doors for them that made success possible. Without those connections, they would never have had access to the opportunities that they did, and many will admit that without their networks, they would most probably never have been successful.
The power of networking can be illustrated with simple math. Let’s say you have 30 people in your network. These are connections with whom you have built solid relationships and they have reciprocated your help and generosity, indicating that they consider you as part of their networks. Now, let’s say that each of your network connections has 30 high-quality network connections of their own (we’ll assume there are no overlaps with your or one another’s networks to make this example neater). When you ask those in your network for something (whether that’s some information, a resource or another favor of some type) and they cannot help you directly, we can assume that they will pass the request on to their own connections. You are now effectively accessing the skills and experience (as well as the networks) of 900 people (30 people who each have 30 connections, or 30 x 30). What is more, all of these people will most probably be eager to help you, even though they have never even met you, since you are highly regarded by the intermediary – the person who knows both you and them. You are being rewarded for not only the effort and time you have put into building your relationships with the intermediary but also the benefits of the effort and time each of your connections have invested in building relationships with each of their own network connections.
This is more than theory. The compounding effects of proper networking can give you access to the skills, experience, and knowledge of literally thousands of people; people who are the resources upon which successful businesses are built.
Get over networking jitters by networking the right way; develop your own style.
But, so what? Even if networking can make a huge difference of paper, in real life it sucks!
The reason why it sucks for you is that you are most probably trying to network in ways that are not suited to your nature. Most networking gurus pretty much list the same networking techniques, and these work for about half of the business world out there.
But as Devora Zack states in her very informative book, “Networking for People Who Hate Networking”, there is no right or wrong way to network. If you are building solid, long-term relationships, then you are making progress.
Most networking authors appeal to outgoing people who love meeting new people and neglect to talk of those who are not very sociable; the introverts and the shy. However, the latter also have their strengths, which, if embraced, can make the entire process more comfortable than rushing into a room full of strangers and doing the “card-swap shuffle”.
Echoing Patrick Galvin in “The Connector’s Way: A Story About Building Business One Relationship at a Time”, networking is not a numbers game. It’s about quality over quantity. That means that you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to meet as many people as possible when networking, whether on or offline. Meeting one or two people at an event (or during an online networking outreach session) who you can take the time to get to know and with whom you can start nurturing robust relationships is far better than returning to your office with a heap of business cards (or, hundreds of “friends” or “contacts” if you are networking online), virtually all of whom you know nothing about, and who you have little time to get to know – precisely because there are so many.
Find your own networking rhythm
It’s essential to set your own pace when building your network. Do not force yourself to exceed what you are comfortable doing. That said, be sure to set up a routine so that you can network regularly. Realistically, this regular networking is done online. If you are able (and willing) to meet people face-to-face, do so. The reality is that you most probably won’t be able to set up meetings regularly as you are reliant of the schedules of others.
Whether or not you network in person, make a point of reaching out regularly online at a specific time every day or week.
Some people like doing things like this daily, others prefer doing it on two or three days a week and still others leave a swathe of time open, say on a Friday afternoon, and spend two or three hours on outreach and relationship building. Try it to see what works for you. However, set up reminders so you make it a habit, whatever the schedule is.
Once you follow this routine for a month or two, it will become habitual, and then you won’t have to worry about overlooking it. I network three times a week for an hour-and-a-half per session on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. Before I start, I buy a caramel macchiato from my local coffee shop and then settle in to enjoy my caffeine hit while interacting with and building up my network. This association between my networking session and my favorite coffee flavor ensures that I look forward to networking and make it a priority.
You can try something similar.
Set realistic expectations
Like many things in life, building up a solid network takes time; years or even decades.
In this article, Karen Wickre talks about staying in “loose touch”, which I think is a great term. It suggests an informality to your relationships, especially initially, which you nurture by touching base with them periodically to see how they are or to share a lead with them to an interesting article that they may be interested in.
As you reach out to connections, understand that initially, your efforts will see very little in the way of being reciprocated. Make peace with the fact that for months you will be doing all of the heavy lifting (through your reaching out to others, keeping track of what is happening in their lives, and searching for information about them) without seeing any reciprocation.
What is more, many of your prospects will give nothing back. Some will block or disconnect from you on social media. Some will even take you for a ride.
However, some will respond. Some of your prospects will start to reach out to you and take an interest in you. It is these “wins” that make it all worth it and these are the people who will value members of your network.
It can be a long slog, that’s to be sure, and that’s why I advocate keeping your pipeline of prospects pretty full until your network starts to take shape. Try not to let the rejections get to you. Discard them and move on.
Stay in control by planning and tracking your network
One of the cornerstones of success in almost anything is to plan what you want to do and then track your performance to be able to analyze it for ways to refine what you are doing so that your results improve steadily.
This is no less true for networking.
Planning your network
Planning your network can be a little unnerving as it can be difficult to identify the people we want to network with. So, how can we go about this?
First off, think about the type of people you already know. What do you like about them? What traits draw you to them? What do you have in common? Use these traits and commonalities as filters when looking for new connections.
Next, bear in mind that you are not looking for anything as specific as a title, profession, bank balance or club membership to identify those you want to target. You want one or two generalized attributes that you know will make it more than likely that you will get on with them. You will most probably also be able to extrapolate all sorts of other information about them if you choose the right types of traits.
For example, your plan could include an undertaking to consider “… people with families (spouses and children) who have graduated from university …”. The fact that they have families means that they are (most probably) stable and responsible, while the fact that they are graduates indicates that they are committed and hard workers.
Or, if you have a common interest, you could identify prospects as something like “… people who like running” especially if you are a runner, too. Right off the bat, you will have something in common. Secondly, the pool of prospects that you could draw from is vast – just think about how many runners there are out there. Third runners are generally fit, healthy and motivated. They are usually high achievers as well as being highly driven and competitive, alluding to many of them being successful and influential.
Obviously, these are very basic illustrations of this idea, and the extrapolated information you come up with is simply hypothetical. If done correctly, however, it will help you identify just who you should be looking for.
Your networking plan should also include the following;
- Where you will be able to search for and identify these prospects, that is which websites you can use to find information about them.
- How you will engage with them.
- How you will help them.
- What your networking schedule will be.
- Which online platform(s) you will use to build your network.
Ideally, you should write your networking plan down and refine it as you proceed with your connection building. Your plan will be the blueprint for your network, which will evolve and develop over time.
Tracking your online networking activity
As important as planning your network is tracking what you actually do while networking online. We have already talked about setting up your networking routine, which will not only ensure that you reach out to new prospects regularly but also follow up with existing connections.
This last point is of the utmost importance. Just as marketing to existing clients has a far greater impact on your bottom line than does trying to find new clients, so reconnecting regularly with existing connections is far easier and more rewarding than trying to make new connections.
To make sure your reconnecting is effective, you need to follow some important guidelines.
- Track the time since you last contacted your connections. Depending on how valuable they are to your network (those with whom you establish the closest relationships having the highest value), you need to design a system that will allow you to reconnect with them regularly, with your higher value connections being contacted more often than the less valuable ones. High-value established connections should be contacted once every two weeks or so, while less valuable (newer) ones need only be contacted every two to three months.
- Track what kinds of outreach messages work and don’t work by creating and refining “scripts”. By creating several scripts and adapting them to the person and situation at hand, and then testing what the reaction is to each when using them, you are able to discard messages that are ineffective and then improve the ones that work. I am not saying that every message should be “canned” but rather try using “ice-breakers” that you know are effective in your initial outreach messages to increase the chance that your prospects will reply to you. Once you have communicated with them a few times, and you think they could potentially become a member of your network, discard the scripts and write personalized messages.
- Create a profile for each connection and update their information and details by making notes of what they say. You can also look at as many of their social media accounts as you have access to, especially LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. If you have known them for a while, you might consider requesting that you connect on those platforms as well. Make notes about their family, pets, vacations, interests and the important events in their lives. It may seem a little creepy and you might feel as if you are spying on them, but if you stick to publicly accessible information (where you haven’t connected with them on social media) and you respect their privacy and treat the information you gather with the deference it deserves, there is an argument to be made for doing this. The information you gather will allow you to create a rich, multi-faceted profile of each of the people you are connected to. It will reveal commonalities as well as their interests and passions, which, in turn, facilitates easier, more meaningful conversations and more effective ways of offering help. Some people are very private and you’ll find virtually nothing about them online, and that’s fine. But for most, people, there is at least some public information online that could be useful. That said, if you feel that this is an invasion of privacy, don’t do this – or simply build up a profile of each person from what they tell you directly in conversation.
As to how you want to track your online networking, there are various options. Here are a few;
- You can use tribemine.com (shameless plug here) which has been specifically designed to facilitate the effective tracking of prospects and connections. It also includes a host of network building tools and resources to help and guide you in building the perfect network.
- You can use CRM software, several of which are free. Check out this link for a list of several good free ones. Although CRM software is designed to track customer/client relationships, they have some useful features that can be used for networking purposes. A lot of their features will go unused, however, unless your connections buy from you.
- You can use a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets to record the details about each connection you make. Although you can enter a fair bit of information, using a spreadsheet may become a little unwieldy when your network grows. You will have to set the date that you want to reconnect with each connection manually or enter the name of each connection into a calendar program when setting the date on which you next want to reconnect. This solution is passable but not ideal
- You could use a word processor program to create a separate profile page for each connection and update it as you discover more information about them. You would have to use a calendar program to set the date on which you want to reconnect with each connection, as mentioned in the point above. Again, this solution is not ideal.
Online networking is not an alternative to face-to-face networking – it’s an essential counterpart
The internet has revolutionized so many aspects of business, from marketing to banking, that it’s hardly surprising that the evolution of online networking has enabled us to reach out to someone on the other side of the world via a website and to build a long-term relationship with them.
You can take at my article here that deals with the advantages of online networking over face-to-face networking. Suffice it to say, online networking is becoming more and more popular, not only because of its convenience but also due to the fact that it allows those who dislike in-person networking for whatever reason to engage with others in an effective way.
It is my opinion is that, as face-to-face networking loses its popularity, online networking will become the dominant method of creating and building business-orientated relationships. This doesn’t mean that meeting others in person will never happen. Rather, I think that face-to-face interaction will follow online relationship building as a way of solidifying already established relationships.
Another fast-emerging technology that will impact the networking sphere is virtual reality or VR. This may open a whole host of new and interesting ways for people to network with one another across the globe, combining the best of both online and offline worlds. Imagine meeting another person on the deck of a virtual luxury yacht cruising the azure seas around the Maldives or as spectators at one the greatest sporting events in history.
However, as yet, VR is still a pipedream for everyday business applications. That said, online networking offers vast potential that is only starting to be tapped into. As we move forward, I am convinced that more and more networking services will emerge to make finding the right people to network with – and then building solid relationships with them – faster and easier.
Networking does not have to be the terrible experience that many people make it out to be.
If you are willing to spend some time thinking about what you want out of your network, while also being willing to invest the time and effort in building reciprocal relationships with members of your network, you can be sure that you will see positive results in your business – and in your life.