As I've grown and progressed in my career one thing has stood out as more of a necessity than anything else: the ability to network successfully enabling the self-generation of opportunity. Having left university and the safe insular nature of student life I was never overwhelmed by the change in workload or the types of work I was undertaking, rather the only thing which I was taken aback by was the value of professional relationships in key elements of business operations and how a network can ease personal burdens. Teamwork is something else entirely, I was conditioned well for the integration within project teams throughout my time of study, networking though is a process of discovery through the establishment of mutually beneficial connections.
For me the stark realisation came very early as I was privy to numerous interactions ultimately witnessing how business gets done. This was an invaluable experience which set me immediately on a personal voyage of meeting people, talking with them and establishing connections ubiquitously throughout a multitude of industries. That's not to say it has been easy or something which has come naturally. It really does take a conscious effort to meet people the older you get and establish meaningful connections which can be relied on professionally. For me there are five things which are essential when networking successfully:
1. Be generous.
The first thing I ask myself when establishing connections is how can I help you? What expertise or information do I possess that is of benefit or value to those I wish to foster a relationship with? What I've found is that you will be remembered for your help, what you give without the expectation of anything in return and from that there may be reciprocation or referrals as a result later on. I continually endeavour to give more time, advice or information than I receive and go out my way to help those professional connections I have made. I may not always be successful but the effort is always appreciated. You win in another way, too. Helping others become successful can be as rewarding as being successful yourself.
2. Follow up on leads.
This sounds obvious but the amount of times I've witnessed promises to make calls or provide information which is later reneged upon or forgotten is astounding. As a principal always make that phone call or send the information you said you would. In addition to that at the next meeting, or around a week later if no correspondence has been received, simply inquire if your contact got what you sent. Sometimes that is all it takes to reignite a conversation or establish a more thorough connection though the sincerity of interest in what people are doing.
3. Be personal.
Another simple one, ask people how projects they are working on are going and congratulate them on any recent successes they've had. Sales grow out of relationships, and this is a good way to establish relationships with key contacts and prospects. Again sincerity is key and if you're not you'll rightfully be written off as an opportunist.
4. Be Visible.
Go to meetings, events and create content for others to consume. Be seen and be sure others know what you are doing. Networking is about making others aware of the ways you can help them while establishing definitively your professional competency and services you offer. Your goal: to be the first person everyone remembers and suggests when others ask, "Do you know anyone who...."
For me personally the most important aspect of establishing any professional connection boils down to one thing; trust. Can I trust you to do what you promise and do you have the integrity to follow through even in the face of adversity? I've been fortunate to create valuable relationships with numerous partners off the back of the above questions. If we are backed into a corner can I trust you to do everything in your power to alleviate the issue and work with us to make things right. Concurrently those are the general principles I would pride myself on. Consistently you can trust me to do what I say I will when I say I will do it and if you experience any issues I am here to help you tackle any problems that arise. It is the backbone on which all successful relationships are built and if the trust is lost the relationship can become irreparably broken.
Networking isn't rocket science. It's about meeting people and establishing a connection. Empathy and sincerity go a long way in creating meaningful relationships which can become mutually advantageous for years to come. It's not about 'what can you do for me now?' it's about 'what can I give to you?' while awaiting the results of reciprocation in the future. That often begs the question 'What if nothing comes of it?' My answer is typically 'so what?' You've potentially established something equally as valuable, a friend to whom you can turn when you need help or advice. It's easy to come to the conclusion that most do, which I would caution against, that it's not what you know, it's who you know. I would tweak that a little 'sometimes it is what you know, but often it's the network you have taken the time to cultivate that will enable your success'.