Chief Relationship Officer
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This is a preview from my book, Currency: Striking Networking Gold in a Relationship Economy. To download a preview section from the book, click here.
If I had one regret from my corporate life, it was that I didn’t understand the power of a social network. Now that I run a company, I sure could use a few more corporate contacts in my network. Back then, I thought networking was something you did only if you owned a business or performed a sales role in your company — it is, after all, a great way to create prospects.
When I made my final departure from the corporate world in 2001, people were just starting to talk about the importance of networking to career futures. It had only been a few years before that when the buzz about mentoring rose to a deafening roar. In truth, people with mentors have a better link to their next job. That is because mentoring creates a foundation of social networking inside companies — face-to-face interaction created during meaningful conversation. Somewhere along the way, people began to understand that you didn’t need a formal mentoring relationship to benefit from networking.
Now I know a few people pooh-pooh networking’s usefulness. I think they aren’t doing it right or maybe they have less-polished interpersonal skills. I know that sounds harsh but the two most important rules in networking are: 1) take a genuine interest in the other person and 2) listen more than you talk. Not everybody is wired that way but anyone can learn those two skills.
It’s pretty rare that the employee gets noticed on a large scale who keeps his nose to the grindstone and works through lunch everyday. If that’s you, you are going through life undiscovered. You’re doing yourself a major disservice when you don’t actively boost your social network by scheduling lunch with someone besides your cubicle mates. You practically live with them — meet someone new! You probably support people within your company who aren’t in your department — schedule a meeting with them to find out what needs they have and see if you are meeting them adequately. Find out what changes they see in the business so you can be a partner in their success. Once you are meeting with them, you can make some casual conversation by asking them about their family, hobbies, or charity work. If you want to approach it as a consultant, ask them, “What keeps you up at night?” and then just sit back and listen. You just have to try this — it works to like magic!
Here are a few tips for expanding your social networking possibilities — AKA exposing yourself.
Get a mentor. Your mentor can help you meet other people as well as guide you as you work on your strengths and weaknesses. They’ll even facilitate the introduction and help you brainstorm what you’ll talk about when you meet with new acquaintances. Your mentor should be someone who is advanced enough in their career that they have a strong social network as well. Choose someone besides your supervisor to mentor you, but be sure to talk to your supervisor about helping you select a mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor to help you meet people as well. The same goes for people you volunteer with. Learn who is in their network and ask them to connect you to people they know.
Use social networking websites to build your online presence. Are social networks really replacing face-to-face networking? Uh, no! However, social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook, MySpace, and Classmates.com are a great tool for creating your online presence. Should you have a presence on those sites? Yes — Internet presence is a valuable networking currency. In fact, if you Google my name, my LinkedIn page will come up number one in the search engine. Now truthfully, I haven’t received any new connections from total strangers and it has generated no new business. However, I get a few requested connections from people I haven’t spoken with in a long time. It’s always good to catch up with old friends and find out how we can help each other.
No matter how popular Internet social networking sites get, they will never replace the value of one-on-one contact over a meaningful conversation where you can read someone’s facial expressions, study their body language, and listen to the inflection in their voice. And just a reminder, if you are using these social networking websites, make sure they present you in a professional manner. Potential employers and clients use your web presence to judge your character and professionalism before they make the decision to interview you.
Make a point to spend face time with your friends. We all live in a crazy busy world and nailing our tails to a chair long enough to make an appointment with our friends is tough. We always say we’ll do it next week — we’ll get together for coffee, play a few rounds of golf, or go work out together soon! It’s a lot easier to ask your friends for help when you’re staying in contact. You never know when you are going to need a job reference, a connection with a potential client, or even a volunteer for a fund-raiser. When you stay genuinely interested and engaged with friends, you’ll earn the love and respect of a group of people who would walk through fire for you. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer that as opposed to my friends saying, “Here’s Carrie calling — I wonder what she wants now!”
If you can spare some time for a professional association that supports your industry, get involved. It’s a great way to meet great people who have similar interests. Don’t just go to meetings though. Get as involved as you can without burying yourself in administrative work. Yes, serve your association but make sure you leave some time for meeting with others in the association outside regular meetings. That’s a new “aha” experience for me as I tend to volunteer for things that are a lot of work. If you volunteer, you can use your involvement as a reason to strike up conversations with others in the industry. If you serve in leadership, offer to speak to the association’s member companies about the association. Don’t be humble or secretive about what you do for a living. You’re volunteering your time and that tiny mention might be the best repayment for the time you invest. You never know whose spouse or best friend is sitting in the audience and would be willing to open a door for you with them.
If you are in sales or run your own business, consider choosing a niche in which your target client is easily accessible through a professional association. Speaking to associations and civic clubs can open you up to a whole new network. If you own a company or sell a product or service, put together an informational program that would showcase your expertise and experience. People are more likely to buy from someone they know as an expert. People don’t buy products and services — they buy solutions. If you work for a company, put together a presentation about what your company or department does. Public speaking is great experience and people in your industry or company appreciate getting a snapshot into your world. You never know — your next boss could be in the audience. Just remember to get your presentation approved by key players in your organization and your legal team if your company has one.
If you don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a group, look for a Toastmasters Club in your area (www.toastmasters.org). It’s inexpensive and gives you a great opportunity to work on your speaking skills on a weekly or biweekly basis. They give you exercises and activities to guide you along your self-paced, self-development journey. Whether it’s speaking to groups, learning to speak off the cuff, socializing one-on-one, or expressing your ideas at a meeting, it will build your confidence and your personal presence. I can’t think of anything that has done more for me than investing in my speaking skills. I was the shyest person ever — the poster child for scared public speakers — so if I can do it, you can too!
Ask for the business card! The key to creating lifelong business relationships is follow-up. An acquaintance can forget you easily in 24 hours. Don’t wait to be called — even if they said they’d call you. Humans are easily distracted. Make notes on the business cards from your conversation so you have a way to start a conversation next time you see the person. If you are speaking to a group, collect business cards to draw for a special prize you’ve purchased.
Likewise, find an inconspicuous way to get your cards in the hands of others. Some people put calendars or tip tables on the back of their cards so they earn a long-term place in a billfold versus the stack of business cards that pile up on our desks. The technique I use is to put my “Leading Meaningful Conversation” template on the back of my business card. When you speak to civic clubs, they often frown on passing out your business card. Instead, mine becomes a learning tool because I incorporate that into my talks. It’s extremely rare to find one left on a table after the meeting is over.
If you are visiting with someone one-on-one, wait until they ask for your card. Asking for their card will prompt them to ask for yours in return. If they don’t, you have their card, you can always enclose it a simple handwritten note card the next day.
If you travel, always dress for business even if it’s a nice blazer over jeans and polished boots — even on Saturday and Sunday! Pack your toothbrush in your carry-bag and skip the cocktail at the airport sports bar. Always be ready! You never know when you’re going to meet someone in an airport
who can impact your future. You can be comfy and still dress professionally.
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