Thirteen years ago, I started a group on LinkedIn dedicated to networking in the Charlotte, NC metro area. It proved to be a very popular group because, over the years, more than 54,000 people requested to join. Despite this popularity, however, I began to see a disconnect between those who expressed an interest in networking and those who participated in networking activities.
Joining an online networking group may be an acknowledgement that you know you should be interested in networking. It may also be a more comfortable and easy way to superficially make some new acquaintances. Nevertheless, the fact remains that nothing breaks down those degrees of separation into actual relationships as effectively as face-to-face conversations.
There is so much anecdotal evidence, as well as considerable academic research, that points to the significant benefits of developing a large professional network. Researchers Raj, Fast and Fisher of the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business conducted a series of studies several years ago to explore why so many people avoid professional networking, even when knowing the benefits.
Why indeed? From their studies, Raj et al found that many people do not view networking “as consistent with who they are as individuals.” What I find very interesting about their research, is that many “superconnectors” find a great deal of satisfaction from relating with and helping people, not just collecting more business cards at networking events. So… could the difference between those who enjoy networking and those who avoid it be simply a matter of attitude?
Sometimes I think the biggest problem with networking is the term “networking,” and all of the expectations associated with it. First and foremost, among these expectations is that of needing to develop an “elevator pitch” and commit it to memory. Can’t remember an elevator pitch, the name of the person you just met, and juggle a handful of business cards? Practice proportional listening (two ears, one mouth). I know a number of superconnectors who make the experience of networking enjoyable by being good listeners. Enjoy getting to know someone new!
While we are on the topic of listening, would you like to be one of the most popular people at a Meet and Greet? Be a good listener! People will think you are fascinating. Brush up on some good interview questions to keep the conversation going. One of my favorite questions is “You mentioned that you help businesses (fill in the blank). How would I recognize someone who might be a good prospect for you?” At some point, the person you are speaking with will ask, “So, what do you do?” It’s always better to give people information that they have asked for!
A few years ago, I was asked to give a brief talk to a group of businesspeople about great networking. Based on years of observation and of hosting networking events, I developed the short acronym “SAFE”. The “S” represents “Show Up” because, as discussed above, so many people will not. The “A” represents “show up with the right Attitude.” It probably goes without saying that, without the right attitude, you will not show up! The “F” and “E” represent “Follow Up” and “Evaluate.” I’ll elaborate on these last two in another post.
In my opinion, the secret to developing the right attitude to systematically form new relationships is to make the process consistent with who you are as an individual. You may not feel that you know a lot about networking, but you know a great deal about forming relationships. It takes time, so relax and find ways to enjoy the process. Getting to know new people can be fascinating… and fun. Focus on that, and you may find yourself mentoring some of your more reluctant colleagues.