Nibbling on fattening food you don’t really like. Squinting at name tags. Smiling so you look pleasant and chatting with people who are totally irrelevant to your association. Meanwhile, while you try to sneak a glance at your watch, people are yakking at you about services you could never afford. You’ve been standing around for what seems like hours, when you would rather be back at the office getting things done, or padding around the house in your stocking feet.
Thom Singer, a marketing consultant and professional speaker, made a persuasive argument at the 2008 NABE Communications Section Workshop in Austin, Texas, that networking is not just for the hopelessly extroverted or the desperately unemployed. It does involve more than just showing up at “Business After Hours” receptions for the obligatory 45 minutes. Networking, properly understood, is important for just about everyone in your organization, and anyone can do it—with sufficient motivation, and a little bit of planning.
For those hardcore skeptics who disdain glad-handers as empty suits who are good only at promoting themselves, Singer dispelled a few networking myths and dismissed the most popular excuses for not doing it. However, if you like and believe in networking, skip ahead to the practical, how-to-make-it-work stuff.
“I am too busy.” Sure, you are all about member service. You pour your energy into serving your members’ current needs. But building up a professional network is an investment in the future for both you and your association that should not be neglected. To quote an old aphorism, it’s important to dig a well before you are thirsty. Singer recounted an anecdote from working with one of his law firms. He asked the law firm to identify its five biggest clients, and then to compare that list to the firm’s five biggest clients from five years ago. The lists were markedly different. The environment in which we operate is full of choices, and it is rapidly changing. “We can’t get caught up in the folly of concentrating too much on today,” Singer said.
“Marketing is something I delegate to others. Decision makers don’t network.” Wrong. Look at the truly successful people in any field. You will find that they are people who are not only credible, but visible. “Everyone claims credibility, and many people cannot tell the difference,” Singer said. “But if nobody even knows you, you can’t even get to credible.” Networking will benefit you in your professional life, he added, and it also will benefit your association. The more people you know, the more effective you can be in many ways.
“People prefer to do business with people they know and like. And cultivating referral partnerships depends on you having valuable information,” Singer said. Networking, he concluded, is not something you can delegate.
The flip side: “Only the senior managers need to network. They represent the organization.” Like the proverbial chain, your organization is only as strong as its weakest link, and the more everyone in your organization is visible and involved in the community, the more your association will be perceived as effective and relevant. And make sure that if you are networking, you share information about those you’ve met with others in your organization.
“I’m on the Internet a lot. I don’t need to go out and meet people in person.” That’s not enough, Singer said. Exchanging e-mails, writing a blog, participating in social networks, or reading about others through their Web sites is not a substitute. Networking, he stressed, “is forming mutually beneficial relationships.” Can that really happen solely through exchanges of e-mails or listing someone as your “contact” on LinkedIn?
Toward more effective networking
Make the best use of your time at receptions and events. Arriving early can be important, Singer noted. Say there is someone in particular you want to meet. It may be more difficult to do that if you arrive late and that person is already engaged in conversation. The room is already warmed up—without you. Staying to the end also can allow you to actually accomplish the preset goals you’ve set for attending. Goals?
Yes, goals. Set a target for yourself of meeting three to five people at an event, Singer advised. Also, make sure to reconnect with people you have met before. Believing that one or two brief encounters with someone will generate business or referrals is expecting too much. Those brief conversations should be followed up with short notes—preferably handwritten ones, Singer said, although he did acknowledge that when truly pressed, he also uses e-mail.
Tips on conversation. Singer is critical of the notion that you need to share your “three-minute elevator speech” with everyone you meet. Instead, he said, you need to be alert to opportunities to create common ground with those you meet. Asking them questions gives you that opportunity. Try to be a generalist and understand basic information about a lot of industries so you can always have a conversational thread to pick up on. Once you understand your companion’s background and concerns, you can tailor your “elevator speech” to be especially relevant. Having first established a rapport by asking questions and listening to the answers, you are more likely to connect with the people you meet when you have something to say.
Have an others-first mentality. In addition to asking questions, be alert for ways you can be useful to those you meet. Understand how other people get business. Remember—networking is about creating mutually beneficial relationships. If you have already helped someone else, he or she will be much more eager to help you.
Follow up beyond events. Networking is not just going to networking events; it is relationship building, and that means following up and nurturing those relationships so that the people you meet become more than familiar names on name tags. Singer said it is beneficial to reach out and connect with people from your past who were important to you. It can keep you grounded, and it will be good for them to be reminded of why they are important to you. Write thank you or congratulatory notes. Set a goal of 10 notes a week so that you can nurture and deepen your relationships, and check on those you already know. Keep records of those you meet—family information, birthdays, etc.
Keep business cards always handy. Put a few in your Saturday blue jeans. Stick some in the car glove compartment. Don’t go anywhere without them, even on weekends, Singer recommended. While you shouldn’t be inflicting your “elevator speech” on your fellow parents at the little kids’ birthday party, you are always meeting people whom you could help, and who can help you.
Tip for women—Dress for networking. Keeping those business cards on you can be difficult with certain clothing for women, Singer noted. Look for business wear that does have pockets. Those outfits can be what you wear to events where you might share or receive business cards. Or carry a small clutch purse that can hold your cell phone and a few business cards. (Singer also has a book that expressly addresses networking issues and pointers for women.)
Don’t avoid people when they are down. If someone you know experiences a personal tragedy, there’s nothing wrong with letting him or her know that you care, Singer said.
For more information about Singer, visit www.thomsinger.com. He has written three books on networking and developed an interactive quiz, the Networking Quotient.