When I started my consulting business three years ago, I knew that I needed to get a pulse on what was happening in and around my city so that I could better position and market my services. I spent the better part of six months attending different lunches, seminars, happy hours, conferences, and volunteering for organizations that were of interest to me. What often began as serendipitous conversations at these events often turned into enduring professional relationships. But this didn’t happen by chance. It happened intentionally.
Over the past three years, I’ve read many books on networking and talked to a lot of people to learn what works for them. I highly recommend Smart Networking by Liz Lynch. Also, a friend and executive coach, Jo McDermott, just published a great blog post on networking. Combining their wisdom with my own experience, I’ve devised four simple rules for networking with intent.
Rule 1. Know Your Purpose
This is a simple rule, but it takes discipline to follow it consistently. In essence, knowing one’s purpose for networking means that one can answer the question,”What will be different because I (attended this event, had this lunch meeting, went to this happy hour, joined this association)?” Purpose helps us think about outcomes and moves us away from getting stuck in “activity” mode – like just trying to meet lots of people and hand out business cards. Purpose helps us think about what we have to offer others and how we can be of value to them. It also helps us think about what we are hoping to receive from others.
If we take the time to think through our purpose, it shifts the kinds of questions we ask and statements we make about ourselves when we meet others.
Rule 2. Hone Your Message
I am not going to tell you to devise and practice an elevator pitch. Instead, I am going to suggest that you create a professional tag line. This is a simple, clear, one line statement that you can use to respond to the infamous question, “What do you do?” The goal of the tag line is to clearly, simply and quickly articulate how you add value for others.
In my case, I offer different types of organizational consulting services. Depending on the event and who I am talking to, I may use any number of these tag lines as an introduction to how I add value.
- I facilitate change processes in organizations in an inclusive and collaborative manner (change management)
- I help people uncover and leverage the hidden expertise in their workforce (knowledge management)
- I help clients make sure the lines and the boxes on the organization chart work as designed (organization design)
- I help people plan and facilitate smooth and successful meetings (meeting facilitation)
I once had a boss who’s tag line was, “I help people make life and death decisions.” Can you imagine forgetting that one? My boss was a cognitive scientist and researcher, and he studied how people made decisions under stress, uncertainty, and time pressure. His tag line was designed to hook the listener and get them to ask follow up questions. With a line as memorable as that, it would be hard to not want to know more.
Rule 3. Give and Receive
People interact with others whom they know, like, and trust. An easy way to build trust is to give unselfishly and without any expectation of reciprocity. You might wonder what you have to offer others. It can be as simple as appreciation – for a speaker that shared valuable insights during a talk at a conference, or for a client who referred you to a friend. You can also give information (feedback, free products) or pass along resources (articles related to the other person’s profession). Of course, introductions to new contacts and referrals is also a way to provide value to others. Giving can also involve sharing one’s time, advice, or services with others. The one rule of giving is that it should be in the other person’s best interest, not in your own. It doesn’t count when you “give” by adding someone to your marketing email blasts or send them unsolicited messages for your services. In most cases, these actions will end all possibility of a fruitful relationship with the other person.
Giving with authenticity makes us feel good, and often that is a strong enough motivation for us to help others. But we should also be ready to receive when connections offer something of themselves to us. Remember, it will help them feel good too! However, we can receive passively and actively. Don’t be afraid to ask people for their help and assistance. More often than not, if they are able to help, they will. Just ask!
I have found that the key to successful giving and receiving is to keep it up! When you’ve achieved your purpose (e.g. landed that new job, found a mentor, or obtained an introduction to an influential person in your field), don’t stop networking! Find a new purpose. We need to continuously invest in professional relationships if we expect to derive value from our connections, and to be valuable to them in return.
Before any networking event, think through your purpose, who will likely be in attendance, and given both those factors, what you have to offer others, and what you hope to receive. Be ready to articulate these things to others so they can help you, and you them.
Rule 4. Extend the Relationship
Follow up is critical to continue down the know-like-trust path with new connections. The more timely the follow up, the better. If you meet someone and together you decide you should set a date for lunch, do it right away and get the meeting on the calendar. If you promised to make an introduction for them, make it a priority in your to-do list. Doing so can help show that you value the other person and are genuinely interested in helping. If you are on the receiving end of an offer, send a quick follow up note thanking the person for their generosity. Its a subtle way to remind them of what they promised to do.
Sometimes we meet people and want to stay connected, even if neither party made any particular offers of assistance. In these cases, I find that I can always use social media as a way to reinforce staying in touch with people. The day after the networking event, I typically go through the business cards I collected and send a personalized email to each person inviting them to stay in touch via Linked In or Twitter. I also keep a list of who in my network is looking for jobs, and regularly send them postings, job articles, or make introductions to people in my network that I think can help.
When someone goes out of their way to help me, I make sure to respond with a thank you. Sometimes it is a simple email, card, or even a gift of flowers, tasty morsels, or a gift certificate. The thank you does not have to be elaborate or expensive, but simply meaningful and authentic. To really stand out, send a hand-written note via the old fashioned US Postal Service. I find that people love to receive mail, especially when it isn’t a bill!
Put these simple rules into practice, and watch your network strengthen with the kinds of people you’ve always wanted to cultivate as personal friends and professional contacts.