People are social creatures, so why is networking so hard sometimes?
The challenge is not as simple as, perhaps, being introverted and having to attend a large professional gathering. For many, the idea of professional networking itself feels transactional or forced.
Research in recent years has indicated that some people associate professional-instrumental networking, where one is building relationships for professional gain, with a feeling of being unclean, said networking expert Judy Thomson, CPA (Canada) and a chartered accountant. For many people, this feeling comes from the idea that networking is about selling yourself and coming away with a stack of business cards and leads for new clients or jobs. There's a way to network without all that pressure, she said.
"Networking is just about connecting with people and building relationships," said Thomson, the COO for Shepa Learning Company in Vancouver. "And so, we registered this term Positive Networking to give it obviously a positive light, and the idea being that networking is not about you. It's not about selling yourself; it's discovering what you can do for someone else with no expectation of anything in return. And when you have that philosophy, it really takes the pressure off networking."
She offered several tips on how to network positively — without ever having to attend a big conference or meeting.
1 Adopt a positive attitude
From her research and surveys at Shepa Learning Company, Thomson learned that about 80% of professionals are uncomfortable with professional networking. A positive attitude makes a huge difference, she said, and it can come from thinking about what you can offer to others, rather than feeling as though you need to use networking to solicit opportunities for yourself.
A positive networking attitude means having a natural curiosity and thinking about how you can add value and help the other person, Thomson said. It is about taking a genuine interest in someone. Allowing conversations to flow more naturally can make you feel better about the experience, she suggested.
In fact, that's what a series of studies published in 2014 by researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard, and Northwestern found. They interviewed lawyers at a large North American firm about events where professional networking was the main agenda, and also about more personal and spontaneous social events. The researchers concluded that participants in formal networking events were more likely to respond that they felt dirty or unclean.
Much positive networking can happen in small informal interactions, Thomson said. Whether you're standing in the lift or queuing to get coffee, all it takes is one other person.
Networking doesn't always have to be about gaining ground in your professional career. It can also offer connections in other areas, such as volunteer work.
This is one benefit networking has offered Wendy Thompson, CPA, CGMA, manager of transportation accounting for Love's Travel Stops in Oklahoma.
"Networking has given me the chance to connect with many volunteer organisations I am passionate about," she said. "A few of these connections I've developed have allowed me the opportunity to serve as treasurer on two boards."
2 Bring a buddy
There's no rule that professionals have to network alone. Often, it helps to have a strategic companion, Judy Thomson said.
For example, accountants working in different areas in a business can team up and cross-market each other, she said. "The beauty of going with a buddy is they introduce you to their network, and you do the same for them."
There are rules for choosing and serving as a good networking companion, she added.
"You should be able to introduce each other to others with what we call the 'glowing introduction' so you are giving the people you meet something to work with," Thomson said. For instance, a friend doesn't just introduce "Susan from tax". A friend gives a few details about Susan that could be used to start a follow-up conversation, for example, her alma mater or favourite sports team, and also sings her professional praises, mentioning her accomplishments or an important assignment she handled with aplomb.
3 Be a matchmaker
Every two weeks, professionals hoping to build their networks should also make a point of connecting two people who should know each other but probably haven't met already. Being a connector not only helps you stay in touch and make another impression on at least two people in your own network, but "you're also doing something, giving these small gifts to people, helping them develop their network", Thomson said.
Helping others build their networks is indeed a gift. The 2014 research about networking at the law firm found people who felt dirty after networking engaged in it less frequently and, in turn, had lower job performance.
4 Learn the skills of networking
Having a positive attitude is at the core of good networking, and the rest is "just mechanics", Thomson said, citing an example from marketing specialist Guy Kawasaki's books on business.
"Anyone can learn the mechanics — how do you exchange business cards, shake hands, build rapport, travel with a buddy, follow up with people — those are all just skills," she said. "But the attitude — the mindset — makes a huge difference."
Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.
Networking tips from an expert
Todd Cohen is a book author and frequently speaks about networking at conferences. Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, interviewed Cohen about networking tips. Here are excerpts of their conversation:
You recently spoke about networking and said, “The time to network is when you don’t need to network.” What did you mean by that?
Cohen: I’ve seen people who only network, only get out there, go to events, try to meet people, when they need to. They’re out of work, they’re in transition, they need something … Networking is not what you do when you’re in pain. You should be networking constantly so that your network, which is nothing more than the army of people who know you, is always at the ready, and you’re always building and strengthening it.
As a piece of advice, you suggest “to be vulnerable”. How exactly does one do that?
Cohen: By being yourself. By being willing to listen and absorb how other people see you. But there is certainly a line. The more skilled you become at building relationships, at talking and connecting with people, the more skilled you are at knowing what’s OK and what to keep to yourself.
Does networking differ from event to event?
Cohen: Absolutely not. You have to take it up a level and say networking is a skill and an art that is present in every conversation. When somebody walks into your office, or you’re in the lunch room, or you have an interaction with a staff member, you’re networking.
According to your advice, there should be a call to action. What exactly is that?
Cohen: A call to action is nothing more than a defined understanding of what the next steps are. What is it that I need to do, [that] you need to do, so we can take this conversation forward to both having mutually beneficial outcomes? You have to set that at the end of the conversation.
You recommend such a follow-up within 24 hours?
Cohen: Absolutely. People have short memories, and they have even shorter attention spans.
What are two or three goals of a networking conversation?
Cohen: You want to make sure you’re making eye contact, you’re smiling, you’re available. You don’t want to monopolise time. The rule of thumb is 15 to 20 minutes, and then you both should move on and meet other people. And have that call to action. Maybe pull out your phones, schedule a time to follow up, and then move on.