15 Expert Tips to Build a Stronger Professional Network
According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, people that give more of themselves than they receive (givers) are the least successful people in the workplace. This may seem like a counter-intuitive way to start out a piece about networking until I tell you that the most successful people in the workplace tend to be givers as well.
In Grant’s book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, he tells the story of venture capitalist David Hornik (you may be familiar with him from his site, ventureblog) and how his nature as a giver made him a bit of a revolutionary within the VC community. Grant cites multiple examples of Hornik going to extraordinary lengths to provide value to the weakest of his “weak tie” connections, and being inclusive in a traditionally exclusive environment.
The book and Hornik’s example specifically got me thinking about the best networkers that I know. Just like Hornik, they have unique perspective that differentiates them from other people. They’re the people that everyone knows and that know everyone.
We experience great networkers almost everyday: business consultant Pete Joplin describes our perception of workplace power as simply a demonstration of an effective professional network. Every workplace is definitely not run by a “giver,” but Grant’s contention that the cream rises lends credence to Joplin’s point.
In this post, I want to share the secret sauce: what do great networkers know that you don’t, and how can you leverage these tips to build stronger professional networks?
1. It’s okay to be anxious (but get over it).
Lisa Petrilli is an accomplished CMO, executive and author of The Introverts Guide to Success in Business and Leadership. She says that especially for people who tend to be a little introverted, “networking” can cause some anxiety…and you need to find a way to get past it:
“The two most important recommendations I have for introverts when it comes to networking are:
- Don’t let it intimidate you; it’s important to make it a priority as your network is an incredibly valuable asset in your career.
- Network with a giving mindset. Go into each event or conversation with the intention of helping others.
This will make the interaction so much easier for you, makes other people feel comfortable because they will be talking about themselves, and enables you to make the kind of strong connections that are invaluable to introverts.”
Further substantiating Petrelli’s points, Forbes columnist Melanie Lindler writes that the majority of people have some social anxiety. Indeed, most people are just as scared of you as you are of them.
2. Be genuine… and be nice.
Writing for PRSA, account manager Heather Sliwinski says that disingenuous communication is evident and oftentimes repulsive to other people:
“You don’t need to compartmentalize or be half of yourself on Twitter and the other half of yourself on Facebook. It’s OK to act like a human being on LinkedIn or Twitter. In fact, having a personality will help develop your personal brand even more.”
Stacy Shuker Reece is even more succinct about the value of being genuine to others and most importantly demonstrating kindness:
“Being nice to everyone means just that. Everyone…taking the time out to talk to the people you encounter in your daily life like they matter is not just a respectful and polite thing to do – it can change your career.”
3. Find your comfort zone.
As director of communications for Zula, you would expect Farhana Rahman to be a prototypical networker. Of course she’s not. Rahman is a self-identified introvert who doesn’t care to meet people at bars or huge social events. The key for her networking success has been to control her environment:
“As ridiculous as it sounds, I found the key to my social side: food. The food table does the trick for me. I would typically linger around the food table, and strike up conversations with people whenever they come by. It’s easy to loosen up when random conversations start off talking about how great the coffee is, how tender the chicken is, or to steer clear from the croquettes cause of the aftertaste. Then people would listen to my recommendations, I’d be like ‘See?’ and it’s only uphill from there….
I stand out to my contacts for the unique exchanges I offer and the fact that I don’t try to use them for my personal gain. As such, they genuinely care for me and shower me with support in my best and worst of times, without me even asking. Relationships like that are priceless. And most of them started near platters of cheese cubes and crackers.”
Erin Greenawald writes in the Daily Muse that controlling your environment is a common and effective way for people to network within their comfort zone. Clearly some of the assumptions that we hold about networking and environment are not entirely accurate.
4. Assert yourself.
Writing for the Baltimore chapter of the American Marketing Association, Arsham Mirshah says that the first rule of networking is to be assertive, yet tactful:
“Imagine you just walked into a networking event where people are talking in their groups of 2 or 3. You look awkward not talking to anyone, so what do you do? Jump in the conversation…. The same goes for social media. If there are blog posts with several comments or a forum post that you haven’t posted on yet, there is NO OTHER WAY than to just hop right in there and join the conversation.”
The assertiveness should extend past an initial meeting and into your follow-up. In the imagined words of Alexander Graham Bell’s mother: “the phone works both ways.”
5. Be curious.
Strategist Brooke Ballard wears a lot of hats. She runs her own marketing agency, she’s a university lecturer, instructor, as well as a prolific writer and podcaster. She says that maintaining and growing her diverse network is a product of her genuine curiosity about other people:
“For me, networking is all about the person sitting in front of me (virtually or in real life). That said, I like to ask questions that help me understand them and their needs, but also uncover areas where I may be able to connect them to someone (or even myself) for business. “
Of course there are plenty of resources out there with questions for people who are curious but less imaginative than Ballard, but for my money no conversation starter comes close to author Chuck Klosterman’s HYPERtheticals card deck. It has 50 over-the-top questions guaranteed to promote a unique discussion. An example, you wake up in a strange hotel room next to a woman that you don’t know (later revealed to be Patty Scialfa). You go to the mirror to find you’ve morphed into Bruce Springsteen, and you have a concert tonight. What do you do? Discuss.
6. Listen more than you talk.
Writer Heather Stewart says that one of the golden rules of networking is to listen more than you talk;
“Ask them what they think about what you’ve told them or ask their opinion on a burning question/new project that you’re working on – and shut up and listen to what they have to say. It’s a cliche, I know but we have two ears and one mouth, so use them in the proportion in which we were given them.”
Research supports Stewart’s recommendation. People tend to talk about themselves about 60 percent of the time in real life, and they post about themselves on social media about 80 percent of the time. Given these proportions, there is a lot of value to being a good listener.
7. Do your research.
Author Michael Goldberg writes that you don’t have to think of networking as act of serendipity. He advises to do research about people that you’ll meet.
Of course research tools are as accessible to you as your smartphone. Search engines, social networks and CRM tools allow you to know a lot about a person professionally and personally before you ever enter into a conversation.
Research can help you to vet who you’d most like to network with, but also what common interests you can discuss.
8. Invest in relationships.
CMO and strategist Ted Rubin is highly invested in his social connections. While working as a CMO, he earned a reputation for cultivating social media relationships to optimize his marketing outreach. Frustrated with the “return on investment” argument about social media, he coined a term “return on relationship.” Here’s how he explains the value of networking:
“Relationships are like muscle tissue… the more they are engaged, the stronger and more valuable they become….. Often I am asked if networking in social media is a worthy investment? My answer: Depends upon what you call worthy. Is building and extending relationships worthy? Is having friends, fans, advocates who support you worthy? We have to move beyond simple sales and marketing and realize that relationships are the new currency and return on relationship will enhance all your personal and business efforts.”
Copywriter and content marketing expert Barry Feldman says that the investment to build your network is career crucial. He says that strong networks build distribution channels and enhance your reputation:
“For a content marketer, a network is your most valuable asset. Of course, you can buy reach, but authentic and organic reach is far more meaningful. The way to approach networking is to ask, ‘What can I do for you?’ and then do it.”
As the Director of Enterprise Sales at Conversica, Erroin Martin relies more directly than most people on his network. He does this successfully by overdelivering on what he promises, and by focusing on the things he does best:
“My approach to networking is to give more to others than to ask from them. By being a resource to others and a trusted advisor I am given opportunities that match my exact skill set. A strong network allows individual contributors to leverage the knowledge and skills of the network to the benefit of your customers.”
In his book, Overpromise and Overdeliver: The Secrets of Unshakable Customer Loyalty, Rick Barrera reinforces Martin’s approach by identifying three elements that overdelivering companies do better than anyone:
- Have a great product
- Have a great system throughout the customer lifecycle
- Have a great human element
In other words, great companies are most likely to overdeliver on their promises when they have great networkers in their organizations.
10. Treat social networking as seriously as you do real world networking.
Robert Caruso is the former co-founder of Bundlepost, operates fondalo.com and probably one of the most responsive people that you’ll ever find on social media. Caruso attributes his rich network to the fact that he treats social networking the same as he treats traditional networking:
“I approach social networking similarly to the real world. Get to know other people first, provide value to them and they naturally will want to know about you, (and) what you do…. It’s human nature and how we are designed. Working within that design will always see results.”
Caruso’s approach may be a huge advantage for him and for others who follow his example. Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard says that social networks can create the same closeness as traditional networks, but the difference between the two results in two different types of communities:
“The benefit of social networking is that it creates communities, but it creates a very different kind of community than offline communities,”
11. Connect with people at all levels
Digital evangelist and chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Sree Sreenivasan says that building your network beyond your peer group can have great advantage for you throughout your career:
“You should connect with people at all levels. In fact, people who are just starting out can be very helpful to you. They have access, and might be more willing to show you how to navigate a particular company or profession. You often find that the most helpful people are not the presidents of companies.”
The converse is also true. In an article on contentment and social media, Glimpulse CEO Paresh Shah writes that because you’ve accepted someone into your network doesn’t mean that they have to stay:
“Don’t be afraid to remove people who are negative or inauthentic…. Focus on sharing and responding only to those things that elevate your relationships.”
12. Be brief
Former executive recruiter and Manager Tools principle Mark Hortsman recommends that you should keep in touch with your contacts once a quarter by email or by phone (presumably social platforms like LinkedIn would be included as well). He suggests three rules for keeping in touch:
- Be brief. Respect your contact’s time.
- Never create an obligation. Horstman is deliberate not to ask questions which require a response. This reduces the time burden on your contact.
- End each conversation or email with something along the lines of: “Anything I can do for you just let me know.”
Author Kevin Daum suggests also that beyond brevity it is important to look for verbal or non-verbal cues that suggest that your contact is getting fatigued by the conversation. He writes that just because you are enjoying a conversation doesn’t mean that your contact is as well.
13. Leverage Weak Ties
In his classic 1973 study of social networks, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter found that secondary contacts (he calls them “weak ties”) were “indispensable” to people’s professional opportunities.
While that’s an important thing to keep in mind when growing your network, Ted Rubin explains that a greater value of weak ties may be the opportunity to introduce your contacts to each other for mutual benefit:
“Spend a little time actively looking for a few people you can connect, and make that introduction. You never know what fruit these referrals will bear down the road. Some will go nowhere while others will result in life-changing relationships, but I promise that the social karma you receive from these efforts will lead to a positive return on relationship. Your brand/business is what you do; your reputation is what people remember and share.”
14. “Don’t keep score.”
Harvey Mackay is a former CEO, an author, a speaker and an expert networker. His book on networking, Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty, is one of my personal favorites. Mackay has one golden rule of networking: give expecting nothing in return. He explains it like this:
“Most of us understand networking as an act of mutual action and mutual exchange. Reciprocity. A transaction that is mutually beneficial to both…. My definition of reciprocity is quite different. You must give without keeping score. No quid pro quo. It’s the one fundamental concept that is the most misunderstood in business today. Few people truly get it. You are either all in or all out.”
15. Keep in Touch
Founder of BNI Ivan Misner writes that his golden rule of networking is to regularly keep in touch with contacts. He offers six tips to do this:
- Respect your contact’s time with brevity.
- Stay in touch on a schedule. This allows contacts to afford you regular time to talk.
- Close each contact by giving a follow-up. Misner suggests telling them
- You should always be responsible for first contact. If you aren’t, you will probably fall out of contact with the majority of your network.
- Invite them to networking events. Very similar to Rubin’s point about weak ties, it can be very helpful for your contacts to meet new people.
- Persist. If you have a networking routine or schedule, commit to it.
“No matter what profession you’re in, you need to get to know people: you need colleagues, a job, social support,”- Maryam Kouchaki, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management
Western Kentucky University School of Journalism & Broadcasting professor Dick Taylor says that a strong network allows him strong professional development opportunities and gives his students an edge during their job placement:
“Through my LinkedIn network, I’ve been able to connect and dialog with both professional broadcasters as well as educators about the issues that are impacting both professions all over the world. My sharing has attracted others to begin interacting with me and my personal network has grown organically. Having these strong connections with the broadcast industry’s movers & shakers is very productive in placing my best students into good jobs when they graduate.”
Despite the effectiveness of good networking, people tend to hate it. Researchers suggest that networking may make us feel inauthentic or even immoral. If these tips reveal anything, it’s that networking can be a genuine activity that we can do with authenticity.
It may be that most people are just networking the wrong way.
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