Networking plays an integral role in so many different aspects of business today. It impacts everything from Sales & Business Development through to Recruitment (both on a business and personal level – just think of the best way for a freelance consultant to find a job). So why is it that so many of us keep committing the same fundamental networking mistakes time and again?
Truth be told, being a good networker isn’t something people are taught in the workplace – it’s just assumed that some of us are good natural networkers and others aren’t. While this is true to an extent, every person has the ability to improve their networking skills and the first step is to stop repeating the same mistakes.
Eradicating these mistakes will provide you with a strong platform to start improving your softer skills (communication, body language), which should help networking feel a more ‘natural’ affair and not ‘forced’. It’s worth noting, I don’t by any means classify myself as a networking expert, it’s just been an integral part of my professional life to date – it’s also the aspect of my work I enjoy the most. I’m under the firm belief that every person you meet in life has something interesting or insightful to offer, it’s just whether you were listening carefully enough to pick all of it up. These mistakes are specifically for establishing new relationships. The dynamics of networking using your existing black book is a different area best left for another day.
1) Being a jerk
This might seem obvious but you’d be amazed. People naturally want to do business with genuinely nice people. If you act like a jerk, you run the risk of long-term reputational damage. A condescending smart-aleck or know-it-all attitude doesn’t make you cool, edgy or a source of admiration (irrespective of what you’ve achieved), it’s the polar opposite – you’re just a jerk. Eileen Burbridge (Founding Partner at Passion Capital) sums it up best when discussing one of her key investment criteria when speaking to startup founders:
My partners and I are all at points in our lives where we’ve the luxury to decide that life’s just too short to work with people who we find objectionable, offensive or even plainly rude. We want to work with people with whom we enjoy spending time. To discern this, we’ll employ techniques that anyone uses when they’re trying to interview/recruit candidates to hire. We’ll ask questions to probe and try to get a reaction about professional and situational matters. We’re also paying attention to how founders behave even when we’re not in the room or out of earshot. So if they’re rude or dismissive of other people (no matter who they are), that’s pretty much a non-starter.
Good manners don’t cost a thing – so please, best to leave all jerky tendencies at the door (or as Eileen explains, best to lose them altogether because someone’s always listening).
2) Entering a networking opportunity without a desired outcome
Without desired outcomes, most networking discussions lead nowhere. Even if the conversation was a nice, friendly chat, did it actually have any substance, or was it nothing more than a pleasant conversation with a stranger? Your desired outcome will help steer the conversation and allow you to make minor course corrections if you’re digressing from your desired outcome. For example, if you’re speaking to a potential future employer, the desired outcome could be to leave a lasting impression of your future employability. If you drop this person an email in a few months enquiring about potential vacancies, will they able to remember you with very few prompts? Instead of talking about generic topics (the weather, sports, politics), zone in on key topics facing this individual’s business/team & where you could help in the future. This could be from publicly available information or on topics thrown up during the conversation. Is this person’s business trying to expand into China? Great, that market entry project you worked on is definitely worth casually dropping into the conversation!
Generic discussions are a dime a dozen in everyday conversation, so it’s key that every networking opportunity has some form of end goal, otherwise, you end up just having a series of very nice chats (which is lovely in itself, however, not ideal in a networking context). All this is not to say that leaving a good impression doesn’t build any capital in a networking relationship, just try to be strategic in your discussion topics while also trying to leave a good impression.
3) Missing the balance between giving and receiving
Effective networking is the product of a smooth transfer of skills, knowledge, or relationships. Too often I see people play all their bargaining chips too early in the hope their goodwill will be immediately reciprocated, which isn’t always the case. Always be mindful of what you’re offering and receiving in each networking opportunity, trying to strike an equal balance between what you ask for and what you give back in return.
If you feel all you do is give and never get anything in return, evaluate whether that’s a relationship you want to maintain – this is especially true of any new relationships. There are a few exceptions to this, such as those individuals who enjoy leveraging their networks for the benefit of others. I would say this, however, is a minority, with the majority of people always looking for some form of reciprocal help.
4) Trying to be someone else
Be yourself. I can’t stress this one enough. People will spot when you’re being phoney or putting on a mascarade to sound smarter or appear to be something you’re not. This is the case in networking situations, and it’s true of all human interaction. Whether you’re making new friends, trying to strike up a romantic relationship or just trying to make a good impression at your new job, people can immediately spot when someone is not being genuine. Being yourself goes a long way to building rapport in any networking opportunity.
5) Not differentiating between a ‘contact’ and a ‘connection’
A contact is someone who’ll lend a helping hand with very few expectations of that goodwill being reciprocated. It’s a relationship that’s taken time to build through establishing an ongoing relationship built on mutual respect. A connection is someone you’ve come across a handful of times and you’ve wanted to stay in touch with, however, the relationship needs to be cultivated to convert it into a contact. Professional & social networking sites have been both a blessing and curse for networking. While it’s a fantastic way to manage multiple relationships, it’s created a series of ‘false networks’ with people assuming their ‘connections’ list is actually their ‘contacts’ list. It’s a dangerous distinction to get wrong as when you’re in a time of need (i.e looking for a new job), you might be quick to learn that your network is built on a series of connections instead of contacts. So when you thought finding your next job was a simple process of accessing your network, you’re gravely mistaken.