People are social creatures, so why is networking so hard sometimes?
The challenge is not so 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 participants leave a networking event feeling sullied or unclean, said networking expert Judy Thomson, CPA (Canada). For many people, this feeling comes from the idea that networking is about selling yourself and coming away with a handful 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 building relationships,” said Thomson, COO for Shepa Learning Company in Vancouver. “And so, we coin this phrase ‘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.
Adopt a positive attitude. From her own research and surveys at Shepa Learning Company, Thomson has learnt 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 another person. 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, and Harvard and Northwestern universities 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 as though they felt dirty or unclean.
A lot of positive networking can happen in small informal interactions, Thomson said. Whether you’re standing in the lift or in line 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,” Thompson said. “A few of these connections I’ve developed have allowed me the opportunity to serve as treasurer on two boards.”
Bring a buddy. There’s no rule that professionals have to network alone. Often, it helps to have a strategic buddy, 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 buddy, she added.
“You should be able to introduce each other to other people with what we call the ‘glowing introduction,’ so you are giving people something to work with,” Thomson said. For instance, a buddy doesn’t just introduce “Susan from tax”. A buddy gives a few details about Susan that could be used to start a follow-up conversation, eg, her alma mater or favourite baseball team, and also sings her professional praises, mentioning a big account she handled with aplomb.
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 already met. 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”, Thomson said.
Helping others build their networks is indeed a gift. The 2014 research about networking at the law firm also found people who felt dirty after networking engaged in it less frequently and, in turn, had lower job performance.
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 former marketing executive Guy Kawasaki’s books on networking.
“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 US-based freelance writer. 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.