‘To Network’ is a verb that has changed its common meaning rather dramatically over the last 20 years. Having never been used outside a Telecoms or IT department, it is now a key tool in commercial parlance.
Networking is a critical skill in the modern business environment. It is also a skill in the true sense of the word, something that you can learn, and with practice, become good at.
The business world is evolving, and it is shaped by social forces, market forces and technological capability. All three of these have had their part in making networking so popular and powerful. The social forces are well illustrated by the old saying – ‘Its not what you know, but who you know’. This is still true today – although for completely different reasons from the forces that originally shaped it.
We are moving rapidly away from a hierarchical society to one that is based more loosely on networked alliances. If we look in our own business area the more traditional pyramid of reporting lines, a dominant head office and rigid company protocol are not what they used to be. We find ourselves in empowered times, matrix management structures and independently focused business units. Even in our homes, schools and institutions, it is no longer enough to have an senior title in the organisation to be able to get things done. The old adage of the ‘who you know’ tended to be authority and class driven. The new ‘who you know’ is all about influence and persuasion and works through a more subtle web of interconnections.
Adding to this is a far more fluid set of business structures. We all suffer from constant reorganisations, and this is layered on top of company downsizing, re-engineering, outsourcing, insourcing, acquisitions and divestments. This means you can no longer afford to be simply aligned to the most powerful player in town, they may not be there next month, indeed the town itself may have moved. Networks of colleagues overcome this problem. Different ones come into play at different times and places.
Market forces have also taught us to value our informal connections more highly than formal ones. Two factors are at work here, firstly the vast over-communication we face from all angles. We are constantly bombarded with information claiming our attention and our main method of coping is to ignore it, and only selectively respect information from previously tried and trusted sources. Secondly the effect of ‘spin’ on our view of authority has been very damaging, many assume those in authority, or official communications, will be heavily massaged. We will distrust these messages, or try to read between the lines to see what they are really hiding. This means we seek the truth from those we know, and will be far more willing to act on those sources than anything we have heard from officialdom.
The last of these forces is technology. Factors such as the web have themselves contributed to the ‘over communication’ issue discussed above. The real benefit of technology to networks is our ability to stay in touch with a wide range of people, even if they are geographically remote or in a different time zone. The technological network allows the social network to thrive; we can get quick and effective answers from trusted sources at the touch of a button.
With these three forces combined, the case for being good at networking becomes even more compelling.
The biggest pitfall is to confuse networking with selling – it is not selling. People who see it as selling are very likely to come across as pushy, and to force the pace of the process. Networking is about creating sustainable relationships over time, and the very best ones involve considerable up-front investment.
There are two short phrases which go to the essence of this investment – ‘Be interested before being interesting’ and ‘Givers Gain’. The first of these phrases will drive your focus towards the person you want to network. Every time you contact your network you want to be interested in them, what is happening in their world, and how can you help them succeed. Networking is not philanthropy, you are in this to get something back, and the best networks have many and varied connections. The breadth and strength of a network is built by knowing ‘who knows who’ and the various skills and influences they have. This comes from listening to your network first before telling your own story.
Finally you need to see your network as a living organism. It needs food and nurturing to sustain it, you need to be proactive in letting it flourish. Technology can help in this, and ultimately it is a human process. Making time to go to the right networking events will positively grow your network and will be time well spent. We all know how our work grinds to a halt when the ‘network is down’, so make sure yours is up 100% of the time.
, Partner focussing on leadership, networking, communication and team building skills.