July 2009: IS YOUR NETWORK WORKING?
This newsletter offers advice, tools, and tips for anyone trying to get better results as they face the daily challenges of being a leader, working on a team, or developing trusted advisor relationships.
Is Your Network Working?
Earlier this year, a former client called and asked me if I would speak to her professional association's chapter on the topic "Networking Into the New Year". She was now the Membership Chair of the association, and having coached her on the importance of taking leadership positions in professional associations as a strategy for building her visibility and credibility, how could I turn her down?!
I started off my presentation by congratulating the audience and quipping that I was probably "preaching to the choir" that night. It was the members who had chosen to work late or go home who probably needed to hear one of my main messages: "When you come to realize that you don't have a very good network, like when you need to find a new job, it may be a bit late". As an old Chinese proverb suggests, the best time to plant an oak tree is 25 years ago. The second best time is now. So having admonished the missing members, I quickly followed up by adding "However, the reality is that it's never too late to begin building a solid and sustainable network."
Why should we build a network, which is defined as: "a usually informally interconnected group or association of persons (as friends or professional colleagues)"? The obvious answer is that your network can work for you even as you sleep! A strong network, whether professional or personal, can provide support, can act as your "ambassador" referring and advocating on your behalf, or serve as a "door-opener" to new people and new experiences.
The impact of not having a strong network was perhaps dramatically felt by one of my coaching clients. She aspired to be a partner in her firm but had not shown any evidence of her ability to bring in new clients. Her ability to convert leads she was given into clients was widely recognized in the firm, as were her excellent technical and client service skills. We had about a six month window to prove her ability to sole source new clients, so one of the first questions I asked her was: "Okay, so let's take a look at your "client loyalty list"... i.e. the list of clients, colleagues and contacts who know you and love you." I knew we had a mountain to climb when she replied "I don't have such a list." She had operated under what I call the "Field of Dreams (remember the movie by the same title) Myth: Build it and they will come". Or as I tell my professional services clients, it is a myth that new business will come solely from operating with this principle: "Just do good work and the phone will ring". She had toiled long hours for her clients but once a project was done she'd done nothing or very little to maintain the client relationships.
This leads me to talk about the broader rationale for spending time, and occasionally some money, on your network. The world works through relationships. As my Father often said: "It's not just what you know, it's who you know." And I would add "it's what you do with who you know.
Networking is the process of asking others for help, while providing it in return. And this aspect of reciprocity is key. If you operate only under the premise of WIIFM (What's In It For Me), you'll not build the authentic relationships that you can rely on when you need them. If, instead, one of your goals of networking is to be a giver, you'll be on the look out for ways you can help others with whom you network.
One of the exercises I did during my presentation to the association was this: "Pick someone here who you don't know or don't know very well. Stand up and pretend you are at a 'cocktail party' with this person and talk with each other. Your communication should not just be chit-chat; the goal should be to discover a challenge, an issue or a problem that your partner is dealing with at work (or personally)". At the end of 5 minutes I asked them to exchange business cards and to each write down 1-2 words of what they had heard and what they could give/send to the other person that might help him/her to address their challenge. I, of course, encouraged them to actually do the follow-up over the next several days.
So the next time you go to a "networking event', instead of just collecting "business bumper cards", set as your goal to engage in a meaningful conversation with at least one person that enables you to follow through with a similar "value exchange". That will begin to form the basis of a good relationship. Your goal should be to learn from and help everyone you meet. Take the lead in offering your networking partners information, contacts, articles and referrals. When you focus on these goals, it takes the pressure off of you "selling yourself".
People who say they "hate networking" are probably reacting to someone else's pushing them to attend an event they find irrelevant and being forced to meet people with whom they think they have little in common. I encourage my clients, as much as possible, to limit their networking time to organizations, events and people whom they care about. Don't join the United Way's Board if you'd rather volunteer at a soup kitchen for the homeless. And if you join an association don't just add it your resume, go to the meetings and volunteer to serve on committees.
A couple of warnings about networking:
- If you currently have a job inside an organization, don't assume that networking is unnecessary. Networking inside your company or firm e.g. "take a colleague to lunch" is a critical strategy for forging relationships, garnering information, getting selected for cross-functional projects, etc.
- While the growing use of social networking tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. may facilitate digital networking, don't assume just by asking for or responding to requests to join someone's network that you are actually working your network! Offer your expertise or recommend others as resources when answering questions; connect or collaborate with others who work in your industry; and don't over-promote yourself.
I am currently getting an opportunity to practice what I preach. Last year I decided to expand my consulting and speaking practice beyond New York City to the Tampa Bay area where my family has relocated so that our daughter can train with a top-notch swim coach. Nearly every other week I schedule a Friday to Sunday visit so that I can have at least 4 networking days in Tampa per month. In a 9 month period on this sparse networking schedule I have made at least 60 really good contacts (and new friends!). How? First, as those of us who are parents know, through Carylyn's school and swim team. And then by joining the Central Florida Chapter of the National Speaker's Association; by attending Tampa Bay Business Journal events; by speaking to Tampa Bay businesses and associations; and by asking colleagues and friends for referrals.
By introducing myself to people with whom I have something, even small, in common like a Kappa Kappa Gamma Tampa Alumni President or a fellow Ohio State Buckeyes fan, I'm not really "cold-calling". The payoff? I have made many new friends and am beginning to feel I've learned a lot more about the Tampa Bay community than I certainly did 9 months ago!
So, how about you? Is your network as strong as it needs to be? What are you doing about growing your network? What are you giving back to your network?
P.S. Remember my coaching client story? Well here's the happy ending. She created a Client Loyalty List and began re-connecting with former clients and colleagues. In six months she proved to herself and the firm that she could, in fact, "build relationships and they will come"!
"Lynda has made several presentations to our Worldwide Team based in the US and to our Global Community of Product Managers and Product Physicians held in Berlin, Lisbon and Miami. Her presentation style is highly professional and motivating and yet is delivered in a way that is open and personable. The teams were very responsive to you because you challenged them and were also supportive."