I always hated networking. I rarely signed up for pre-conference cocktail parties and when I did go, I just wanted to hide. If I was attending with someone I knew, I was ok until they abandoned me. The thought of joining a group of unknowns and participating in their conversation was terrifying. Why? Because no one had ever taught me how to do it. Now that I know how to do it, it’s actually kind of fun.
Some of you may have taken the Gallup Strength Finder Assessment. If not, I highly recommend it. It may be the best $19.99 you’ve spent in a long time. One of the things I learned about myself from this assessment, is that I’m a “Relator.”
You’d think that this would mean I’d be great at networking. But, quite the opposite. As it turns out, this strength is all about how I relate to those I know well. In other words, I form deep bonds and derive a great deal of pleasure and strength from the few people with whom I’m close, and not those I am about to meet. Sound familiar?
By the way, if you are interested in learning more about yourself, check out this blog. Also, there are many great personality and career assessment tools that can be taken online and many are free. For a complete summary of the best tools available, download this free resource.
So, what does a CEO, who has to network do about this problem? Well, as it turns out, another one of my strengths according to the assessment, is that I’m “Strategic.” This is a good quality for someone who hates networking because it means that to overcome this fear of meeting people, I’m going to need a strategy.
If you’re like me, you need to have a strategy to become a great networker. If you want, you can adopt mine.
The “One Thing” you need to remember about networking: Give more than you take
I’m a big fan of the book,“The One Thing” by Gary Keller. When I took over as CEO for the non-profit I led, this became our mantra. Focusing on too many things will prevent you from truly achieving your goals.
So here’s the one thing you need to remember about networking. Always give more than you take. Never network to take. Networking with the intent to take is called “schmoozing” and it’s not only counterproductive, it’s no fun.
A quick comment on tips
If you Google the word “networking” as I did, you’ll find a ton of tips for networking. These might be helpful but they are random and not the best approach to master networking. They represent a collection of “silver bullets.”There are no “silver bullets.” You can become a master of networking. Trust me you can. But, you can’t learn it by collecting tips. To get better at networking, you need a strategy. And, you need to practice this strategy.
3 Step strategy to successful networking
Here is my three-step strategy. To make it easy to remember, just remember that it is made up of 3 “P’s”.
Prepare: 4 simple steps
Who do you want to talk to
Imagine you are attending a conference in a few weeks. And, because you’ve asked the organizers two weeks in advance for a list of those registered, you see that some of the influencers in your universe are going to attend. These are people who are important for you to meet. In fact, you hope to talk with nearly everyone who is in attendance.
Whoah! Slow down. Although there is nothing wrong with networking with everyone you meet, this is not going to accomplish your networking goals. You know who the leaders and influencers are in your domain. You need to get to know them. More importantly, and this is critical, they need to want to get to know you.
WARNING: Schmoozer Alert!
Now, you may be saying, if I just focus on these individuals, aren’t I a schmoozer? Yes, if that were true, you would be. But that’s not what I’m saying.
What I’m saying is that you need to take advantage of all networking opportunities that come your way. You never know who will become your new best friend. You need to think about your career strategically. Getting to know these people as soon as you can will help your career.
Create a shortlist
You don’t know if you will get your chance to talk with them after they speak, at the pre-conference social, or in the hallways. But, you’ve created a “short list” of about five people and you’re going to make it your goal to talk with them.
Do the research
With your shortlist in hand visit each of their LinkedIn profiles and learn everything you can about them. You might even Google them and see if they have recently spoken at an event or written a book. As you do this, create a one page summary for each person.
I know it sounds a bit creepy, kind of “stalkerish,” but it isn’t, it’s called preparation. If you use Evernote, which I just love, create a note. That way you’ll be able to review it while you’re on the plane or before you get your big chance to meet them.
As a side note, you will find that sadly many don’t’ keep their LinkedIn profiles up to date. Don’t be like them. If you do successfully network with someone, they are very likely to check you out on LinkedIn. Think of this as inviting someone you really like to your house but not straightening it up first. Ouch!
Understand what makes you unique
Also in advance of the conference, you’re going to take inventory of everything that makes you unique. This may sound corny but there is a method to my madness. Here’s why you are going to do this. In a casual conversation with someone, you want them to find you interesting. They will if you can share a small piece of your life with them. Why? Because we are all unique and exciting in our own ways.
But you say, “I ‘ve always been taught to try to find things I have in common with others.” Well, that works great for making new friends but when it comes to networking, having something in common is what Dorie Clark in her HBR article, calls “table stakes.” Here’s what she has to say,
“…the way to genuinely capture their interest is to share something that seems exotic to them. “
Doing this, taking inventory, is a lot easier if you enlist friends and family to help you.
Practice: Putting it into action
First, practice these techniques before your actual networking event. You can try them with friends. If this isn’t possible, try it with groups of people you meet at the conference who don’t represent those on your short list. That way you can build up your confidence.
Let’s use the same scenario. You ‘ve registered for the pre-event social and you’re excited to meet new people. “Stop!”, you say, “I’m terrified.” Ok, fair enough. But keep this in mind. We’re practicing. If you’ve practiced with friends and family, who, oh by the way, probably wanted to learn what you’ve learned, this won’t be entirely new. And even if you haven’t, this is a very low-risk opportunity.
You enter the room and there are groups of people conversing around those tall tiny little tables that have no chairs. Conference organizers use them so people won’t plant their bottoms in one place as they want them to mingle. They are uncomfortable for a reason, and it works to your advantage.
You also see people standing around by themselves. Guess what; they represent the “old” you, not the “new” you. How do I know? Because I was one of them at most events I attended until I had a plan.
OK, we are here to practice, so what are you going to do? You have two options and both are good. It just depends on how brave you are. But, we can take baby steps if you want and go with Option#1 first.
Option #1: Networking with someone one-on-one
Walk up to a person sitting or standing by themselves and introduce yourself. Ask them some open-ended questions such as the following.
- Hi, my name is Bob, what’s yours?
- Bob (use their name right away), where are you from?
- How was the trip?
- What’re you hoping to get out of the conference?
- Have you come before?
- Do you go to other similar conferences? What’re they like?
- This is my first time, any recommendations?
Notice I didn’t use the classic, “What do you do?” question. You’ll get to it, but you want to learn more about them as a person first.
Here’s the key. Get in and get out. Why? Because if you don’t, they’ll attach themselves to you like Velcro. Or worse, you’ll do the same to them. If that happens, and trust me I am speaking from experience, you’ll never get to meet others at the conference.
So, at some point in the conversation, your exit line should be;
“Bob, it was great talking with you. Please excuse me, I have some other folks I need to talk to. I hope to run into you again.” You can use a line that’s disingenuine, like, “I have to use the restroom.”, But this doesn’t let them know that you need to talk with others. Tell the truth but in a polite way.
Option #2: Entering a group discussion
This is where you walk up to one of those groups standing around a table and gradually insert yourself into the conversation. You do not want to be intrusive, but rather, at some point contribute to their discussion. This sounds scary, but remember you have a plan.
Sometimes when you walk up to the group, it is apparent you’ve arrived and either you or they, will take care of the introductions. If you, simply say, “Hi, I am Bob Baird.” and extend your hand to each person. As they shake your hand and tell you there name, say, “Nice to meet you, Jane.” This is critical. As they say, their name PAY ATTENTION. Nothing is more important at this moment than hearing, remembering, and repeating their name. Bottom line, you are going to need it throughout the conversation.
Once the introduction(s) phase is complete, just begin to really listen to what is being said. Or, if they ask you questions, which they likely will answer using their name such as, “Thanks for asking Jane.” or, “Great question Bill.”
Let’s say you walk up, and they ignore you. I recommend you hang for a bit longer. Maybe they are in mid-conversation and it isn’t a good time to acknowledge your presence. While they’re talking, listen hard to what they’re saying. At some point, you will want to interject a question, but it’s kind of like being on a relay team, you need to get up to speed with the one you are going to hand the baton to before you make the handoff. When you feel you understand the ongoing conversation, look for a break in the discussion. Then, ask your open-ended question related to that conversation. This should do it. And if it doesn’t, which is improbable, just politely excuse yourself and move on to the next group.
Assuming you’ve now entered the conversation, look for opportunities to mention something about yourself which is unique. It goes something like this, “Jim, I completely agree with what you just said. One of the things I like to do in my spare time is curling. And, you probably already know this, but curling is a sport with very strong ethics. In fact, at least in the Eastern part of Canada, the winning team buys drinks for the losing team.” If this doesn’t create an interest in you by others, I don’t know what will.
Provide: Always look for opportunities to give
As you listen to others in these conversations, or when you find that opportunity to talk with that one person you came to meet, look for ways you can solve problems they may have. Maybe they need a ride to the airport after the conference, perhaps they need someone who knows lean manufacturing, and you happen to know someone. Maybe they need advice on how to become a better curler! Who knows?
Look hard to practice what we discussed in the very beginning and remember to try to give more than you take (if anything). The conversation isn’t about what you can get, but what you can provide. You want them to become interested in you.
The people on your shortlist
The conversations you’ll have with those on your short list are not fundamentally different than the ones you just spoke with at the social event. That’s why we practiced. In fact, they may have been at the event, and you can now cross them off your list. If not, you’re ready. Take comfort in knowing that you have the information you’ve collected in advance, information that will serve as an ice-breaker or serve to fill a conversation when necessary. But remember, the key is to find something you can do for them. Do this by asking open-ended questions that might reveal something given your strengths and contacts.
Well, that’s it. A strategy for overcoming your fears of networking. Practice and you’ll become an exceptional networker. It only takes a plan and some practice.
You may not be perfect in the beginning, but you’ll get better at it the more times you execute your plan. Remember the 3 P’s; Prepare, Practice and Provide, always keeping in mind that the secret is to give and not take.
There were a lot of other related networking topics I wanted to address in this article, but it was getting a bit long. So, I’ve created a Part II which will come out in a week Here’s what will be discussed in that article.
- A foolproof strategy for requesting and receiving business cards
- How to follow up
- How to network on LinkedIn
- How to network when you are looking for a job
- Advanced techniques in networking when you are ready
To make sure you don’t’ miss it, signup here and I will notify you when it is released.
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Take care till next week,
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