Five simple steps to improve your networking skills

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Last week I attended a seminar in Dubai called “Business Networking & Sex” (as in gender). The speaker, Phil Bedford, shared some interesting facts about the importance of networking and how men and women go about networking differently. Whether you are a man or a woman, a good network is crucial for your career and business success. Even though most of us know this, we don’t spend enough time building and maintaining our network. In this article, I’ll share with you five simple steps to help you improve your networking skills.

The benefits of a network

According to Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap in the HBR article, “How to build your network”, the three unique advantages of a network are:

  • Access to private information- Whether you are looking for a new job, you are looking to invest in a new company or you are looking for a nursery for your kids, the private information you will get through your network is more valuable than any public information you can find on a website, a newspaper or brochure. The information will be subjective, and it is up to you to decide whether or not you trust the person who gave you the information, but in many cases it’s invaluable.
  • Access to diverse skill sets – As Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas”. In today’s connected world where information flows freely and access to talent is global, having access to a diverse skill set is key. There is no way that your company will have all the skills needed in-house. In order to be successful, you need to be able to tap into the best resources of talent and diverse skill sets – and a good network will help you do just that.
  • PowerTraditionally, power was embedded in the hierarchy of the organization. The more senior your title, the more power you had. Not anymore! In today’s flat organizations the ones with power are the ones with the best networks. The “informal brokers” who can sign that new customer, who can influence decisions and who can quickly adapt to change are the ones with the real power.

There are a number of quick steps you can follow to improve your networking skills.

1. Change your mindset about networking

To a lot of people, the word “networking” is synonym to schmoozing, selling yourself and sucking up to people. They think that networking is all about attending networking events and swapping business cards. If this is the way you think of networking you have to change mindset! Networking is not about selling yourself, building and maintaining a network is about giving. As Robert Cialdini writes in his popular book, “The Influencer”,  one of the key principles of persuasion is reciprocity. If you do someone a favor, they will feel obligated to return this favor. However, instead of doing someone a favor with the intention of getting a favor back, just focus on the pleasure you get by giving and helping other people. Someday, somehow, the person will give back in a way that you couldn’t have imagined or planned.

2. Know that you always have something to give

You might think, “What can I give, I have nothing to offer”. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have nothing to give. You always have something to give –but to know what it is you need to be attentive, ask questions and listen to other people.  Last week when I attended the networking event in Dubai I was speaking to a woman and it turned out one of her business partners was looking for pregnant women to volunteer to try a new 360-degree scanning product by one of their clients. I said I would be happy to volunteer! I would never have thought that my pregnancy could be of benefit to someone else!

3. Don’t be selective in building your network

Some people only want to build relationships with high-level executives. This is totally the wrong mindset for building a network. When you build your network you shouldn’t be selective – anyone can be a great value in your network. You have no idea what their position will be in a few years, who their relatives are or their hidden talents.

4. Lower the bar for staying in touch

I know that the best way to stay in touch with someone in my network is to pick up the phone and call the person, or better yet go by their office and say “hi”.  I know that I’m “supposed” to do this, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. If you are the same, it’s easy to give yourself an excuse for not doing it. My recommendation is that you lower the bar for staying in touch. If you are not comfortable with calling someone or dropping by their office – send them an email. If you feel that email is too direct – send a message through a social network like LinkedIn. Lower the bar and stop making excuses!

5. Stay in touch without asking for favors

Whether you call, send an email or a text message remember that the “staying in touch” part should be effortless and positive for the receiver. There are thousands of things you can say to stay in touch – you can give the person a compliment for something they have done, you can say that you met someone who knew them, you can say you were in a place that made you think of them, and so on.

For example, if you’re in London for a business trip, an example of a message to a London-based contact in your network could be:

Hi John,

I’m in London for a business trip and I thought of you and just wanted to drop you a note. I hope all is well with you and your family. It was really great seeing you last time you were in Dubai.  Great job on the launch of XYZ, I saw the articles in the news.  Take care!

Sincerely, Ulrika

This requires no follow up from the receiver and is just a nice message. If your message, on the other hand, includes some “action” from the receiver it’s no good “staying in touch” message.

Hi John,

I’m in London for a business trip and I thought of you and just wanted to drop you a note. I hope all is well with you and your family. It was really great seeing you last time you were in Dubai.  By the way, can you send me a copy of the article you wrote on XYC? Take care!

Sincerely, Ulrika

Now, instead, you are leveraging your network to help you. There is nothing wrong with that, but you shouldn’t confuse asking for favors with staying in touch. Manager Tools have some great podcasts that cover building a networking and how to stay in touch in more detail.

As always – things don’t happen by themselves

Even though I’m fairly good at staying in touch with people in my network, I can definitely improve. Something I’ve realized is that I have to plan and schedule keeping in touch just like I schedule my “normal” work tasks. Otherwise, it just doesn’t happen. So I would advise you to add a daily/weekly task to Outlook or schedule time in your calendar to write those emails or make those phone calls.  This is time well worth investing!

(If you have difficulties reading this article, you can access the full article in pdf here)