Networking gets a bad rap because it’s misunderstood. Networking is not about trying to get something from someone, or trying to impress someone so they’ll buy some- thing from you. Networking is about building trust and rapport. It’s about building a friendship where, if you’re doing it right, you should be doing more for the other person than they do for you, at least at the start. It’s kind of like parenting – somewhat of a thankless task, but one day it will pay back dividends (or so I’m told).
It’s often thought that networking is only needed when you’re looking for a new job or need a new client. I believe (love it or hate it) that networking should be an ongoing task, no matter what your role or career stage. You should invest in your networking constantly, because you never know what life is going to throw at you and you never know where opportunities are lurking and how a relationship can provide a benefit until it does.
Ten years ago, I met a gorgeous woman at a health retreat. We had precious little in common. We lived in different cities. She was a mother, I wasn’t. She wasn’t into business and I was. And there was 25 years between us. On the outside, this woman had nothing to give me and I had nothing to give her, but that didn’t stop me from throwing myself in and learning as much as I could about her. By the end of the week, through tai chi and the sharing of activated almonds, I’d found a new friend.
Over the next ten years, we kept in touch loosely through social media. One day I discovered that her daughter was looking for a career change. One thing led to another and now her daughter is one of our most valued team members. I could have lost touch with this woman because, on face value, we had nothing in common. What I’ve learned, though, is to be kind to everyone and to invest in networking without expecting an outcome.
I always get a kick out of watching how ideas manifest and relationships flourish. Over the years, Business Chicks has been responsible for thousands of connections that have turned into great professional relationships (and one personal one too! We were thrilled last year when two of our members started dating! #loveislove).
Years ago now, authors Margie Warrell and Dr Libby Weaver came along to a Business Chicks event, where they met the inimitable Kristina Karlsson, founder of lifestyle brand kikki.K. Between the three of these women there’s a whole lot of wisdom and talent going on. Neither Margie, Libby nor Kristina came to that event with any sort of explicit intention, but over time they developed a friend- ship that would soon turn into an idea benefiting them all. Occasionally, kikki.K publishes existing books with limited edition covers; on a recent trip back to Australia, I was in a kikki.K store and smiled to see both Margie and Libby’s latest books on the shelves there.
In a similar case of seren- dipity (or just effective networking?), Amanda Fisher came along to one of our events without an imme- diate goal. Amanda had been weighing up some options for her sustainable fashion brand Bachhara. She’d been growing the business for some time, but was starting to think about her next move when she struck up a conversation with another member, Lidija Pintur. Lidija was working in IT at the time and wasn’t thinking about investing in a business, but a seed was planted. Lidija ended up becoming a shareholder in Bachhara and has since gone on to be the sole owner.
Like Margie, Kristina, Libby, Amanda and Lidija, here’s what you’re going to need to know if you want to master practical networking that turns into something more.
KNOW HOW TO START. Either find someone on their own and introduce yourself or approach a group of people. When approaching a group, hover back a little and wait for a break in the conversation. Introduce yourself confidently, and let the group open up to let you in.
GET GOOD AT ANSWERING ‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’ Use your answer to create rapport, start a conversation, say something mean- ingful and appear interesting. Say why you do what you do and why you’re passionate about it. If you don’t love your job, include something else that you do love doing.
DON’T BE THE PERSON WHO ASKS, ‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’ Instead, try, ‘What are you working on at the moment?’, ‘What are you passionate about?’, ‘What are you reading at the moment?’ or ‘What are you most excited about right now?’ Other simple opening lines might be, ‘Have you been to one of these events before?’ or ‘Have you heard the guest speaker before?’
LISTEN MORE THAN YOU SPEAK. Every great networker I know is a brilliant listener. Most people only listen to then reply – they don’t listen to really understand the other person. Practise listening deeply and when you do, you’ll uncover what the other person is really trying to say. When you listen deeply, you might be able to help them come up with a solution, or allay their fears, or truly help them talk through a problem they’re facing. Don’t obsess with how you’re going to reply; sometimes the best response is silence, so the other person can come up with their own answers.
LEARN ABOUT NLP (NEURO-LINGUISTICS PROGRAMMING). One of the most significant things I learned early in my career is the practice of NLP. One of the fundamental basics of NLP is mirroring another person’s body language, posture, speed of speech, even down to the volume that they’re speaking at and how fast they’re breathing. It’ll enhance your communication skills and subliminally make the other person more comfort- able too. Ever noticed how annoying it is when you’re on a deadline, or stressed about something and trying to work at a rapid pace, and someone walks up to you and speaks really slowly and can’t get to their point? It works conversely too – if you’re calm and measured and the other person is frantic and stressed, then you’re going to have a mismatch on energy. It’s worth investing some time studying NLP and at least learning how to mirror well. I promise you’ll see an improvement in your relationships and communication when you do.
DON’T HAND OVER YOUR BUSINESS CARD AT THE START OF THE CONVERSATION. Don’t assume that someone is interested in you or that you have something in common or will want to maintain a relationship. And always ask for permission with a simple, ‘Would you mind if we swapped cards?’
DON’T SELL. A lot of people still think you go to a networking function to find customers immediately. Relationships built through networking events are just like relationships in real life – you wouldn’t propose on the first date. People have to learn about you, they have to trust you. Think about networking as a marriage. First, you’re introduced to someone, then you start dating and get to know each other, then you get engaged, then married.
LEAVE PEOPLE WANTING MORE. People who leave you wanting a bit more from a conversation are much more likely to be remem- bered than the guy who will just not take your cues and shut up. You want to avoid going on and on to someone to the point where they lose interest. You’ll get remembered if you offer just that little bit less than the next person and keep your listener wanting more. Just be aware of how your story is landing; if you’re seeing eyes glaze over, or people looking elsewhere, it’s time to wrap it up.
NEVER BE NEGATIVE. Never gossip, never whine, and never talk badly about a past employer or employee. You want to be seen as a positive, professional person who can be trusted. If someone fishes for gossip, try to deflect it with an offhanded comment and move on to show you just won’t be drawn on it.
KNOW HOW TO LEAVE A CONVERSATION. At networking events, you’re there to meet people and get a good return on the investment of your time, which means you should try to meet as many people as possible. Just try saying, ‘It’s been so great talking with you and I’m here to meet as many people as possible, so let’s please keep in touch!’
STOP SAYING YOU’RE BAD WITH NAMES AND START TRYING. Try repeating the person’s name when you first meet, straight away (‘Nice to meet you, Zoe!’). And if there’s some way you can make that name stick for you, say it again (‘I work with another Zoe and she’s great!’). The first key to remembering names is to stop saying you’re bad at it. Instead, practise repeating the name back and make associations to help you along.
AND LASTLY, ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT. There’s an unwritten gender expectation that women are supposed to be more caring, compassionate and cooperative than men. The problem with this assumption is that it can lead us to feel a little icky when it comes to asking for favours, or asking for what we want. I’d love to see all women step out of their comfort zones and practise asking more of each other. I love it when I get asked to help and love it when women have the courage to seek that help. We need more of this!
The importance of following up
It’s still surprising to me the number of people I’ve offered to help, maybe someone I’ve met on a plane or at an event, who haven’t followed up afterwards. If you feel an opportunity is there, make sure you go for it! Even if no specific opportunity came from your conversation, get in touch with that person and thank them for their time.
FIND THE TIME. Don’t bother going to a networking event if you’re not going to follow up. I block out half an hour in my diary to follow up after I’ve attended an event.
BE CLEVER WITH HOW YOU GET IT DONE. I once met a woman at a conference and we started talking about our favourite chil- dren’s books. She hadn’t heard of the one I’d recommended, so after the conference I ordered it and sent it to her. She was blown away that I’d remembered and gone to that trouble, and she’s become a firm friend since. It’s so important to take your cues from people. If you hear someone likes a particular kind of chocolate, it’s so easy to send it to them. Great networking is about being memorable and standing out.
TELL THEM WHAT THEY TAUGHT YOU. I met a woman at a networking event once and she followed up with an email saying, ‘Lovely to meet you and here are some things I learned from you.’ She bulleted a few points which were a great summary of what we’d spoken about. It made me feel good to think I’d had an impact!
NEVER ADD SOMEONE TO YOUR DATABASE WITHOUT PERMISSION. Even if they’ve expressed interest in your business or you’ve agreed to stay in touch, you should always still ask if it’s okay to add them to your database. And never actually use those words – no one wants to be ‘added to a database’. Instead, explain what’s in your communications and why they might like it and ask if they’d mind if you included them.
ASK THEM IF YOU CAN ADD THEM TO YOUR SOCIAL NETWORKS. Ask for permission to connect on LinkedIn and when sending the invitation, make sure you add a note about why you want to add them.
HAVE A CALL TO ACTION WITH YOUR FOLLOW UP. If you’re interested in having a long-term relationship, be sure to include a call to action, for example, ‘Hey Sara, it was great to meet with you last night. I know we spoke about running a webinar together – can I give you a call next Tuesday to have a chat about that?’
HANDWRITTEN TRUMPS EMAIL EVERY TIME. We should try to make the time to write notes over emails where we can. A little card in the mail shows you care, and guarantees you’ll be remem- bered more than someone who just shoots off an email.
Emma Isaacs is the founder and global CEO of Business Chicks, Australia’s largest community for women, and is passionate about inspiring women to be bold, be courageous and to take risks.
Over the past 13 years, she’s grown Business Chicks from a group of 250 members to what it is today – a global business that operates in two continents, 11 cities and produces more than 100 events annually with past speakers including Sir Richard Branson, Seth Godin, Dr Brené Brown, Arianna Huffington, Diane von Furstenberg, Sir Bob Geldof and Jamie Oliver.
Born and raised in Sydney, Emma now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and five young children. She has raised over $AU12 million for charity, is a serial property investor, and continues to head up the now international Business Chicks.