I was surfing Linkedin recently and a saw an image that read “Don’t just have a mentor. Have a cabinet of people around you who want to see you succeed”. The post goes on to talk about exposing yourself to and interacting with a diverse array of people in terms of experience, backgrounds and industry expertise. While I likely need to work on ensuring I have a robust network outside of my field, I can attest to the power of having a strong network.
But having a strong network means doing something that some people truly dread…networking.
If that’s how you feel, it’s time to change that impression. In a Harvard Business Review article on the topic, while the authors note that networking is often perceived in a negative way they go on to state “A mountain of research shows that professional networks lead to more job and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority” (HBR May 2016, Learn to Love Networking)
Part of the challenge with networking is just making the leap and getting started. But before you do, it’s critical that you know you have to do more than just show up. You have to be prepared to contribute your knowledge in addition to learning from those around you. When you’re ready to take the plunge, below are a few quick and easy ways to dive in.
- Volunteer for your professional association – It’s one thing to be an association member, it’s another to be part of the committee of people who is trying to support the needs of the association. You’ll connect with the leaders in your field and get a more holistic perspective on the needs of a variety of different association members. For example I’ve volunteered with AceTech Ontario for more than four years during which time I’ve facilitated a roundtable, spoke at their annual retreat, run a customer feedback survey and presented a workshop. I’ve met many of my professional contacts and developed incredible and lasting friendships through active participation as a volunteer with the association.
- Go for coffee and lunches, a lot – I have a lunch or coffee date with someone at least once a week, either as the person who has extended the invite or the one who has been invited. I learn so much from these interactions…people have different approaches and opinions and being open to learning from others is crucial for personal and professional growth. This only works if you give at least as much as you get.
- Attend conferences and participate fully – Signed up for a conference? While you’ll likely get some nuggets in each of the sessions the best information typically comes from the networking during breaks, lunches, dinners and special events. Also – don’t be shy to approach the event speakers and ask the questions you didn’t have a chance (or were too intimidated) to.
- Say yes more than you say no – the more you say yes to invitations to speak, go for coffee, provide advice, participate in roundtables, the more you’ll be asked. And the more value you provide during those interactions , the more you’ll get asked.
- Do things for free – Even though your thoughts, opinions and experience might be worth millions, helping others and volunteering can be more rewarding than a big fat cheque. Start-ups and entrepreneurs are notoriously strapped for cash and are looking for expertise from others, help them. They’ll fail more than you know and likely have more scrapes and scars than you can see. You’ll get this back tenfold when you’re looking for advice yourself.
- Be an amazing listener – This is an absolutely critical piece of the puzzle. Don’t interrupt, don’t provide your perspective unless asked…learning can’t happen if you’re so busy thinking about how you’ll respond to the person speaking that you never really get the point in the first place. Great conversations happen when you listen and then continue to learn as you ask questions about how and why someone did something the way they did. You can truly get some great insight into other people’s perspectives this way. You don’t have to agree but do yourself the favor of trying to truly understand.
Just be ready to accept that not everyone you interact with is going to be someone you’ll connect with for life. Some might take more than they get, others might have difficultly committing the time or might have difficultly networking themselves. But doing nothing will only serve to keep you standing still. I feel extremely lucky to have the network that I do and hope to continue to expand and build it. It has helped me to grow and develop and contributes significantly to both my personal and professional happiness.