Build a Stronger Network

How many people did you meet last week? How many people have you had a meaningful conversation with this week? Who have you helped this week? These are questions I ask myself all the time.

For me, relationships are the most valuable currency of business. It’s important to meet new people and keep up with my existing relationships. It’s cliche, but it’s true… sometimes it is who you know.

Look at any successful person and you’ll see a huge network of other successful people around them. While there’s no guarantee that a relationship will get you the deal, your next job, or a cover story in BusinessWeek, they can help you get in the door (and that’s half the battle). If you don’t have a strong network, today is the day to start building one.

Before I get to some suggestions for building a stronger network, I want to clarify a few points. I’m not suggesting that you start a business card collection. Too many people think networking is about collecting business cards – whether actual or virtual – in an effort to demonstrate how many people they “know”. Networking, like so many other things in life, should be a quality over quantity proposition.

Here are some general suggestions for expanding your network:

  • Know Your Goals – determine the types of people you want to build relationships with. Remember, smart networking is a quality over quantity thing. Set goals for yourself, such as meet five reporters that cover my industry or develop relationships with the CEOs of two public companies. If you know who you want to meet, list them out. Tip: remember to set an achievable goal and a deadline, such as X number by Y date.
  • Keep Score – if you set your goals, track your progress. Did you achieve your goal or not? While I don’t advocate counting cards, it’s a good measure of how many people you’re meeting (the same goes for Friends, Followers or Connections through various social networks). If your network isn’t expanding proportionately with the people you’re meeting, revisit your strategy.
  • Target the Right Engagement Points – if you’re looking to build relationships with media, attend events or conferences where there is the largest concentration of these journalists. If possible, pick venues where people will be in a networking mood. Using the journalist example, a big tradeshow isn’t the best place to meet a journalist. A media industry happy hour might be. Ensure that the event you choose is an appropriate networking environment. The holiday party at a newspaper might be good, but journalists could also frown on this activity. A great example would be a media relations event with a lot of journalist guest speakers.
  • Have a Good Opener – you’re going to have to introduce yourself at a networking event. You should be able to answer the “what do you do?” question consistently, with a clear and memorable message. It doesn’t hurt to prepare this statement and practice it – just don’t sound like a robot when somebody asks you (unless of course you are a robot).
  • Get Digits – exchange business cards with the people you meet. This might seem like an obvious approach, but I often overlook this when I get caught up in conversation. While it’s easy to find people via social media these days, a card is an invitation to follow up. Throw an idea out there to the people you meet, and ask if you can follow up to discuss more. This gives you an excuse to follow up. If you don’t have a pen, email the person with your contact info on the spot. Bonus points if you Bump somebody.
  • Follow Up – it’s easy to throw a stack of business cards on your desk and never touch them again. You should always follow up a first meeting with an email or phone call. Do this within 48 hours of meeting somebody. If you skip this step, you might as well toss the cards. I’ve made this mistake before and have kicked myself later when I needed to connect with a person I had lost touch with.
  • Stay In Touch – don’t let your relationships die off. Keep in touch with people. Some job hunters I met back in the late 90s are now directors at big brands. When you keep in touch with contacts over the long haul, you’ll be surprised how many interesting connections you’ll have down the road. You’ll quickly become one of those people that knows somebody that “does that” or “works there.” Of course, you want to stay in touch with people so they’ll remember you too. People forget who you are and what you do – you have to remind them regularly if you want to get value from your network.
  • Dress Appropriately – a morning meeting of CEOs (or bankers or lawyers) is a suit and tie event. A happy hour event with marketers is business casual (or jeans). Leave the flip-flops at home. Some people will think you’re cool, but some will roll their eyes. I’ve never been one to get caught up in what people are wearing, but others care about this sort of thing.
  • Deliver Value – I’m pretty passionate about this point. I regularly scan my contacts to see what ideas pop into my head. If I come across some information that would be interesting to one of my contacts, I share it with them. If I see synergies between people in my network, I share it. If somebody asks me for help, I offer it willingly. Don’t miss the opportunity to pay it forward, you’ll feel great and will find people often reciprocate.
  • Don’t Judge – people don’t always make the best first impressions. Don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t make assumptions about people after only a few interactions. I can’t tell you how many times my opinion has changed about people over time, as I got to know them better. At the same time, our personalities change over time. People grow. Don’t base your opinion about somebody on outdated information. At the same time, don’t brush off a contact because they don’t have an important-enough sounding title or work for a famous brand.
  • Look in the Mirror – it’s one of the hardest things to do, but take a good self-assessment on a regular basis. Are you putting your best foot forward in networking situations? Do you tend to make more requests from your network than you do give back? Don’t be greedy when building relationships. If you’re constantly turning to your network when you need something, versus trying to find a way to help people in your network out, the strength of your relationships will weaken.
  • Keep It Fun – meeting new people is fun. It’s a great way to expand your circle of influence, to learn more and to advance in your career. I am fortunate to have a large network of peers I can interact with. It’s okay to have a sense of humor and to be relaxed with people – just be conscious of your environment and your audience.
  • Build Relationships When You Don’t Need Them – don’t start networking when you need to find a new job. This is the most common no-no I see with networking. On the same note, don’t expect a journalist to give you a warm reception when your first interaction is a pitch. Get to know people before you have a request for them. Things are much easier in any area of business when you know the person already. Of course, this is one area where journalists have it a bit easier – most people are willing to talk to a journalist (but it’s still easy if the connection already exists).
  • Say Please and Thank You – when people say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, they make more of an impact on people (at least me). It’s common courtesy, and it’s right.
  • Be Sincere – if you just care about the connection, and not the person, it will show. Don’t bother spending any time on networking unless you are willing to spend the time it takes to establish and nurture those relationships. It’s corny, but relationships are like plants in your garden. If you don’t water and fertilize on a regular basis, they’ll die.
  • Everybody is Important – the Barista at Starbucks? She’s working on her MBA and is going to be your boss in five years. The guy working on your car? He’s going to coach your kid’s soccer team next season. And that woman wanting to interview you for her school paper? That’s the CEO’s daughter. Everyone is connected. Never – never ever – assume somebody is not relevant to the type of relationships you’re looking to build today. You never know who will be important, so assume everyone is.

Start With One New Connection Today

You might not remember this, but I bet your kindergarten teacher tried to get you to play with the other kids. You should do this as an adult too. I’ve never regretted taking the time to get to know somebody else. Have I met some people that annoy the heck out of me? Maybe. But I probably drive them crazy too. More often than not, you’ll be amazed by other people. It’s the best investment in your personal and professional development you could possibly make.

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