Building a professional network

Why building a network is critical to your success           
The building of a robust network (external and internal) is critical to your success. An established quality network will allow you to develop relationships that not only provide potential business opportunities but also ideas and innovation, information, market intelligence, advice and personal support. The true value of a network develops over the lifetime of your career as more and more hidden connections and resources become available to you. The practice of networking as a business tool is not new. History demonstrates that individuals have consistently looked to each other to facilitate self-improvement in all facets of life. From securing an interview for a job to receiving personal coaching, the potential benefits of networking are very significant. The best networkers will provide opportunities for others both in a business and personal context and in return, others will support you. Key individuals who hold important information or can open the right doors for you may be just one contact away. Networking is an essential activity that when executed well will reap very significant rewards for you both professionally and personally.
The right mindset
The ‘spirit’ in which you build a network is important. Consider the following:
  • Build for the long-term
  • Aim to develop relationships
  • Build on mutual gain
  • Give first – provide help, information, resources
  • Beware of selfish short-term thinking – ‘What’s in it for me?’

Who to build relationships with?
Individual task It is the year 2020. You are a very successful professional. Most of your work is referred to you by a network of people. You have built up this network during your career to date. This means that you have invested time and effort into cultivating these relationships over a considerable period of time – not easy for a very busy professional. What characterises the people in your 2020 network? What attracted you to these people in the first place and made you think that it was worth the time and effort that you have expended over the years in developing and maintaining this internal and external network?
The process of building a network
  • Decide on the ideal profile of your network (see below – Deciding where to network).
  • Consider what you have to offer the network – what’s in it for them?
  • Decide how to communicate who you and your firm are.
  • What are your capabilities and services and what do they offer?
  • Formulate an action-based activity plan and get out there!
  • Make the right first impression.
  • Proactively manage the network and record activity.
  • Adopt the abundance approach – keep giving as opposed to being only interested in opportunities for you and your firm.
  • Be professional in everything you do – treat others in the way you would wish to be treated.
Deciding where to network
Because a strong network is so useful, it is essential to approach networking systematically. Just as you should have plans for client relationship management, so you should also have plans for developing and sustaining your network of contacts. Probably the best approach is to firstly decide your overall target market – the industry or market sector that you would like to become ‘famous’ within. In order to develop a good network in your target market, you should address the following questions:
  • In which organisations / events do you need to be visible?
  • What kinds of referral sources do you need and where / how can you meet them?
  • Who can influence potential clients to choose you – and how can you meet these influencers?
The most efficient way to begin to build your contacts is at events that bring people together with similar interests – professional conferences, seminars etc. If you are addressing a particular target market your target industry association should be able to help you determine which events would be the most appropriate. You will be most successful if you contact event organisers ahead of time and ask for a list of participants with contact information. Identify specifically the firms or individuals you want to meet. You can consider sponsoring a reception if you have a number of contacts that you want to make.
Creating advocates
An important part of networking is encouraging people who know your capabilities to become active in recommending your firm to others (i.e. to become your advocates). You should provide advocates and potential advocates with frequent updates on your accomplishments, particularly as you expand your capabilities and alert them to the types of opportunities that would be ideal for you and your firm. When advocates are helpful it is important to acknowledge the help that they have provided in order that they feel that their efforts are appreciated.
Following up
Networking does not stop with meeting people. For those with a busy schedule, follow through becomes the challenge. An information management process is critical to your success. If you do not have a system in place, here are some ideas to help you build and maintain a strong network:
  • Note the function, date and key issues on the business cards that you collect as soon as possible (but not in the presence of the card-giver). These will help jog your memory and to identify which of several business cards is the most current.
  • Have a ‘standard’ follow-up letter ready to send out when you return to the office. Remember that you are likely to be very busy at that time, so being prepared in advance is helpful.
  • Set up a mailing database to track information and make correspondence easy. Find reasons to keep in touch. Send the person copies of papers that your firm has written, news clippings that they may be interested in and anything to keep you and your capabilities in their minds.
Planning   Be positive and smile; networking events can be fun!
Behaviours and techniques
  • Be warm and approachable – be the first to offer a handshake
  • Be conscious of the power of the right body language, particularly eye contact
  • Demonstrate genuine interest in others
  • Ask questions to seek to understand
  • Use what?, why?, where?, how?, who?, when?, which?, tell me?, describe to me?, explain to me?
  • Ask the host or people you know to introduce you to others
  • Listen, listen and listen!
  • Talk about others first – don’t launch into a sales pitch for your firm
  • Spend some time with people you already know – existing contacts will notice if you ignore them
  • Ask people you know to facilitate introductions to others you don’t know
  • Clarify others’ names if you did not hear it first time. Use their name in conversation (in moderation). People feel good when you know their name
  • Think about who you could facilitate introductions to for the individuals you are targeting
  • Exchange business cards – read cards you are given, show respect and interest in what they say
  • Prioritise the business cards you collect to help plan post event follow-up
  • Always give your card to others
  • Wear your name badge on the right – as most people shake with their right arm their line of sight naturally flows to your badge
  • Circulate! You are there to make as many contacts as possible
  • Politely move away from conversations by announcing you are going for a drink or by introducing others to the group
  • Look for opportunities for follow-up contact with your targets – write down any agreed action on the back of your contact’s card, they will know you are serious
  • Ask others what you can do to help them
  • Monitor the time you spend with any individual – aim to establish rapport, this will motivate the individual to accept post-event dialogue
  • Stand sideways in a group in order that you can monitor activity in the room – where possible avoid standing with your back to the room
  • Approach individuals or groups of three – it is difficult to break into a conversation between two individuals
  • Obtain a list of actual attendees
  • On leaving take the time to thank the hosts personally
  • Plan and execute immediate post-event actions