The term networking has been around for a very long time. And like the term, I have been networking (or at least that is what I thought I was doing) for a very long time with mixed results. While I am much better at it than when I started, I along with so many countless others have asked, “how does one demystify this black hole called networking?”
My first encounter with networking probably first occurred in college. More than likely it was tied to the annual career fair that my alma mater, Howard University, hosts for companies that are looking to recruit students for full-time and summer intern positions. Of course this was also before FaceBook, LinkedIn, other social networks, and before Al Gore invented the internet.
Once I had more than two years of professional work experience, I started getting the occasional call from recruiters (or head-hunters as they are sometimes called) inquiring as to whether or not I was interested in a certain position, or if I knew someone who might be interested in the open position. I have done my share of career fairs, either as a representative of the company I worked for, or as an attendee. However, every traditional job that I ever had was tied to my relationship with someone in the firm that I ended up working for.
As an example, my first job was with Proctor & Gamble (P&G) in Cincinnati, OH as a process/project engineer. I was recruited on campus, but also knew several alums who were working at P&G in various locations across the U.S. I also worked for P&G as a summer intern. While it took me a while to realize the power of these relationships, knowing or becoming connected to someone in the company, especially in Human Resources, was very helpful. The next four positions were direct assignments, and they came about in a similar fashion. They were tied to a relationship(s) that had been created while gaining more knowledge of the firm.
After launching my consulting practice in 2001, networking took on a whole new meaning. While I had significant work experience, both technical and C-level management, and had even worked for CH2M Hill, a full-service international consulting firm, the struggle to become known as a small business was an up-hill climb. I felt like a small minnow in the ocean. Networking as a business owner is very different than networking as a prospective employee. I have accumulated bags of business cards over the years, yet I can’t say that they did much to bring me new business. Sadly and initially, most consultants viewed me or my company as a competitor. Another sad reality is that there could have been partnership opportunities for both me and my competitors. Thank goodness all consultants, companies, and independent contractors don’t think this way.
This leads me to Key Point 1.
Key Point 1: Distinguish a Networking Mixer from a Networking Club
Most often when we use the term networking, it usually is in reference to a networking mixer or event. Had I known the difference 25 years ago, my outcomes for work opportunities “may” have been different. What’s a networking mixer? The mixer is designed to bring interested people or parties together to create opportunities to meet business contacts, socialize with food and drink, and have fun. Music may be included which can be problematic if it becomes difficult for participants to hear each other. The sponsor(s) of the event may also give a short presentation.
While I love a great networking mixer, all are not created equal. They can range from sparsely populated to over crowded events that are designed to be socials, i.e. not much in the way of business connections but a great time to be had by most if not all. To gain the most from these events, one must be pragmatic in identifying who you choose to reach out to and why. A lot of those business cards that I spoke of came from networking mixers. I pride myself in following up with many of the folks that I meet in any setting. Needless, to say, I rarely hear from the folks who I exchange business cards with, or even the ones that I followed up with.
A networking club tends to operate at a higher level, and may or may not include food, drink or music. The primary objective of the networking club is to bring like-minded individuals from a variety of industries together for the sole-purpose of sharing knowledge and resources to create business opportunities or increase business. Meeting frequencies occur from once-a-month to weekly, and there may be an annual, quarterly or monthly fee.
Obviously by tacking on a fee, there is an incentive for the club members to assist each other in meeting their goals and expected outcomes. Members of networking clubs tend to be business owners and entrepreneurs who can rub each other’s shoulders and elbows to create business referrals and new contacts.
Key Point 2: It is all about the Relationship
It is really all about the relationship that you establish with these contacts. The new conventional wisdom says that too many folks who are looking to land a new job, start a business, or find investment partners don’t take the time to establish a relationship that will lead to these connections. Michael Mothner, CEO of Wpromote says “Become a Super Connector! Give your ideas away. Helping others be successful is a fabulous way (good karma aside) to establish the basis for future value back to yourself. Even better? Connecting connectors – you’ll become a super-connector and a networking maven.” [Ref 1]
As I mentioned earlier, I went to numerous networking mixers over the years. Most of them did not lead to a new job or new business, or at least not immediately. It is those individuals that I established a relationship with over a period of time that assisted me in finding new career opportunities or business leads. Back to conventional wisdom: on meeting a potential contact, do not – I repeat again – do not ask for anything. Listen. Find out what that person needs or what his/her company needs. Ask “how can I help you?” Offer up helpful information or advice if you have it, or get back to her/him if you need to.
After establishing a new business relationship, do not ask for anything for at least six months. Some folks even recommend extending that to nine months or one year. Now, if your new contact asks if you have a need, this is an open door to share what your needs are. Being a master networker is about being a master servant. Any wonder why so many people are bad at networking?
Key Point 3: Go for Quality over Quantity
So what’s a person seeking job or business leads supposed to do? I am not advocating that you stop attending networking events. They can be valuable and if you emerge with one good solid contact, you came out ahead. According to Patricia Fletcher, “Networking events have earned a bad rap because of the awkward social situations we tend to make them out to be. The event organizers had the best of intentions – to help you build your connections. Yet, there you are, surrounded by people just like you, people who needed to meet people. Just not people who needed to meet you.” [Ref 2]
These days when I go to a networking mixer, I’m less likely to try and work the entire room. I seek quality conversation and relationships. If I am interested in meeting someone from a particular company or firm, I usually inquire if there is a person representing that organization at the event. After that, I am open to meet others in the room. Rather than a 30-second introduction and exchange of business cards, I spend more time with an individual attempting to find out more about him or her, if they have a particular interest or need, and if there is anything that I can do to help them. If I leave the room with three to five business cards, I feel much better than leaving the room with 20 cards. Three to five quality business leads are much more valuable than 20 cards from people that I hardly know, and more than likely they will feel the same about me.
A bright spot in the networking arena are job clubs. They emerged during the Great Recession and are designed to do what most networking mixers don’t: help those in the room get leads and/or jobs. According to Good Morning America, job connection clubs are small groups of people across America that meet regularly to talk candidly about job searching and career advancement with the goal of supporting the success of all members.
Looking for work and navigating career challenges are made easier when you’re not alone. Similar to book clubs without the books, investment clubs without stocks and bonds and weight loss clubs without a focus on diet and exercise, job clubs are rooted in the belief that each member has something valuable to contribute and that everyone benefits from the advice and encouragement from the diverse group dynamic. They tend to be smaller, the group is more intimate, and everyone is helping everyone else land a position. [Ref 3]
Continue to attend networking mixers and events, but also consider joining a job or networking club. The reality is that you will need to use a variety of tools to find that next job, contract, sales, or business partner.
Key Point 4: Do what you say you will do.
Whether it is a networking mixer, a networking club, or a job club, if you commit to following up on an action item – send resume, provide a phone number for a contact, research some information, etc. – do it!
Don’t treat this like a date. I might call him or her back, or I might not. Follow-up promptly or within the timeline agreed to. And always, always remember to be respectful of your new connection’s time.
1. Networking Tips from the Inc. 5000, http://www.inc.com/ss/networking-tips-inc-5000-ceos#5
2. Networking Tips: Go from Awkward to Awesome, Patricia Fletcher, May 10, 2012, http://www.inc.com/patricia-fletcher/awkward-to-awesome-five-networking-tips.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+inc%2Fheadlines+%28Inc.com+Headlines%29&goback=%2Egde_39315_member_114714030
3. ABC’s Good Morning America, What is a Job Club?, Tory Johnson, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/JobClub/story?id=6121035&page=1