The oft-repeated adage that "it isn't what you know but who you know" is, like most things, only partially true. Perhaps, "chance favours the prepared mind" would be a better maxim. Developing and maintaining a well-rounded skill set is obviously the paramount consideration for anyone who is relatively new to a given field, but it soon becomes apparent to most of us that in order to truly grow as a professional, it is essential to build and maintain an intentional network of valued contacts. More often than not, the connections that we make which are most beneficial to us happen after the work day is technically over. The practice of networking allows us to not only meet new people in our fields, exchange strategies and ideas, and build up our contact database, but to potentially secure funding for a new business venture.
The internet has in many ways made networking easier than ever. Social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn are useful for a quick glance at a potential business partner, employee, or investor, but nothing beats a face-to-face meeting under the right circumstances. Often, a conversation with the right person about something completely random, like family or a shared hobby, can prove to be more valuable than hours spent slogging behind a desk or computer screen chasing leads.
Getting out into the world and broadening your business horizons can in actual practice be physically and emotionally draining, not to mention time-consuming, so it is essential that we cultivate relationships that are actually mutually beneficial. Your time is valuable, and you should view the time you spend networking as an investment. Remember, this is your intentional network, not to be confused with your personal network of family and friends. While it's true that our personal networks can sometimes lead us in directions that are good for our careers, the relationships in our intentional network, while necessarily collegial, are fundamentally business relationships and are understood as such by all parties involved.
So, how do we connect with the people who are the most likely to help us grow our business or advance our careers?
Industry networking events, workshops, mixers, even holiday parties and charity events are all great places to make connections. Becoming a member of an association or club for people in your field is also a good idea. Becoming part of a golf club or member’s only organization is also a great way to mix business with pleasure, as many business leaders spend their time relaxing with like minded people in such locations. Once you decide to take the plunge, there are three main types of people to connect with.
Movers are the decision-makers. They are hiring managers, investors, board members, and CEOs. They can revitalize your career over the course of a conversation, but keep calm and remember: They’re people too. Connect on a personal level, and keep in mind that more likely than not, one conversation won’t change your life; networking is all about making connections that will be valuable to all of the parties involved, in the long term. In a healthy business relationship, both parties should enjoy the law of reciprocity. In other words, stay informed about topics of interest in your field, and focus on the ways that you can potentially be of value, not the other way around. While the movers are probably what most people think of in terms of having the highest networking value, there are two other kinds of connections that are just as much if not more beneficial. Without them, you may never get to make that valuable connection with a mover in the first place.
Information wells are people who've been around the block and know the industry and its players inside and out. While the information well may not have decision making power, she or he knows who does and may also know what they value in a partnership, as well as a bit of personal history. They can also provide insights about peripheral players and point you to a matchmaker. Remember, that in any networking situation, the expectation is that both parties will bring something of value to the relationship; maybe the highest form of respect in the world of business, is a demonstrated desire to see those around you prosper. Keep an ear out for ways that you can help your contacts to succeed. Information wells love to be in the know, so that could be as simple as passing along information which only you are privy to.
Matchmakers are the people who seem to have known everyone in the room (or on the golf course!) for years. These social butterflies trade in the currency of human connection and often seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of everyone's strengths and weaknesses and what they bring to the table. Like the information well, the matchmaker has a bird's eye view of the situation, but has also built up relationships of trust, so when she or he is handling the introductions, it means something. A matchmaker may introduce you to a hiring manager or a potential partner or investor.
Even chimpanzees understand the concepts of fairness and reciprocity. As your intentional network of business contacts grows, make sure to share the new contacts you make with your matchmaker, whenever practically appropriate. Not only will you be potentially strengthening two of your partnerships, you will be demonstrating your value and reinforcing the cohesiveness of your entire intentional network.
If at all possible, check out the guest list or list of attendees before attending an event. Seek out the information wells, the movers, and the matchmakers, introduce yourself, and enter into any conversation with faith in your capacity to be a trusted asset and confidence in your vision and expertise. You'll be surprised at the opportunities that will begin to open up. Also keep in the mind one of the golden rules laid out in Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People: show an interest in others in order to elicit their interest in you.
Chances are you already know one of these people, most likely an information well, so be careful not to get stuck in the corner shooting the breeze with the person you feel comfortable with the whole time. Keep in mind that the relationships you will make are intended to be reciprocal and beneficial for both parties. It will be your responsibility to maintain ethical, trusting partnerships and demonstrate your value consistently, and it's a safe bet that the person you're wooing already understands that. In other words, don't go in with your hat out; enter with the knowledge that you are a talented and valuable professional who brings a unique perspective to the table. You've come this far and you are here to make connections and demonstrate your value, so this is no time to release your inner shrinking violet. At its root, good business is built on trust and the strength of human connections. Some connections may fizzle or prove counterproductive; learn from your mistakes, be more selective, and keep moving. Before long, the only relationships that will remain are those which you enjoy and are worth cultivating.