Networking: Why you should do it, and how to improve your skills
Penny de Valk says networking's worth doing - if done properly.
Networking is a critical leadership skill, but it is something many people, particularly women can feel deeply ambivalent about. People often ask, “how do I get comfortable with it, and if it doesn’t come naturally isn’t it therefore inauthentic?”.
The answer is always the same. First, getting good at new things is rarely comfortable to begin with, and second, if you find networking tacky and transactional then you should check your mindset around it. It could be getting in the way of building valuable relationships.
By changing how you view networking, it can instantly feel more comfortable. Instead of asking 'What’s in it for me?' or 'I suppose I’ll have to go to another boring event' try thinking 'How can I help? What can I learn?'.
Some believe networking is manipulative, and all about ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. Others will actively avoid it because they can’t stomach the thought of an evening standing around talking to dull folk with a warm glass of bad wine, exchanging cards and stifling yawns wondering if they can get home in time to put the kids to bed so they can get on with their real work.
It is important to get really clear about the value you bring to your organisation and your network and how you can help others. The more confident you are about what you offer the more natural networking becomes.
While others think networking is just about career advancement, when it is more nuanced than that, and anyone who approaches it with that sole objective isn’t likely to be successful.
Building your network
It is true - there are probably dozens of ‘bad’ networking events happening in any given city in any given week, but this isn’t really what good networking is. Networking is simply building a group of people who are invested in your success. And doing this intentionally, as well as generously.
Herminia Ibarra, Organisational Behaviour Professor at the London Business School and author of ‘Act Like a Leader Think Like a leader’ helpfully talks about three kinds of network:
- Operational – helps get work done
- Personal – hang out with informally
- Strategic – important for career advancement
It can be useful to consider how you might categorise your network - it can make the leveraging of relationships more comfortable; for example, if you’re calling on a member of your operational network, it’s because you want something to happen and being focused on that puts your request into perspective.
This also means you will help them out when they need it. So, it is important to get really clear about the value you bring to your organisation and your network and how you can help others. The more confident you are about what you offer the more natural networking becomes.
And on the theme of it not being all about you, remember we are all drawn to people like us, we are comfortable with people of the same generation, in the same sector, working in the same function etc. but this doesn’t mean they are necessarily the people we will learn the most from.
Building a network that thinks and behaves exactly like you is easier but if you want it to stretch and challenge you, and to facilitate advantageous relationships, embrace difference in terms of what people are good at, how they approach things, their views and beliefs and their own networks.
Leveraging your network
So what if you do all this, and you manage to build an impressive network. What next?
Women’s leadership author, Sally Helgesen, says women often think about leveraging relationships as ‘not nice’. She says, “Women may view asking for something as transactional, so they miss out on the value of the relationship”.
When you consider that a strong network can offer you support, information, challenge and development, it seems crazy that we’re seemingly reluctant to tap into that. Doing so doesn’t mean you don’t respect the members of your network.
You can still have a great relationship and rapport but recognise that if their capability or connections could help you, that’s okay. Consider it as reframing – from transactional to a win/win partnership.
Amplifying your reputation
Another often overlooked benefit of having a good network, is when members of that network talk positively about you to others. I’ve been in meetings where a manager has been talking about an employee who they believe has strong potential, and it’s clear that this perception is largely built upon what others say about the employee in question.
If they get ringing endorsements across the organisation or within their network, then it ultimately helps them develop and progress.
So, ask yourself, within your network, who is talking about you to others, and what are they saying? If it’s not happening, are you being passive, and how can you change that? Are you talking positively about members of your network to others?
Personally, I have never recommended someone I didn’t 100% believe in, so it’s not about telling the world how great everyone is and hoping that they’ll return the favour, but about building your reputation as someone who makes genuinely useful recommendations and helps others.
Tips for getting good at networking
- Be strategic in building and leveraging your network, that doesn’t make it transactional
- Approach networking with a mind-set of abundance - how can I help, what can I offer?
- Find a common interest - listen to people, be curious
- Ask for advice - people are usually genuinely motivated to help you or share what they know
- Invest time in your network without expecting an immediate return
- Make sure some of your network are outside your organisation and not ‘just like you’
- Acknowledge it is important for building your leadership capability and impact, and work at getting good at it
About the author
Penny de Valk is a leadership coach and mentor.
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