Man is by nature a social animal, Aristotle taught us.
In an increasingly virtual and somewhat disconnected world, one thing remains universally true: being successful as a businessperson requires supreme communication skills and a decent networking strategy.
Lots of people cringe at the mere thought of networking, let alone the terrifying idea of being faced with a room filled with people ripe for conversation, and it is often perceived as a way of using people, of being manipulative.
It’s clear that it could use a public relations campaign and a bit of rebranding. Venetia Howes, immediate pastmaster of the Worshipful Company of Marketers, commented to me last year: “I started to understand the power of networking the day I stopped calling it networking and personally renamed it advice consulting – seeking and giving, that is.”
Like anything, it is a question of perspective. Business networking expert Andy Lopata gives us a change in perspective. He is a master in business networking strategies and respected speaker and author. He says: “One has to remember that everyone brings different types of expertise and skills that are somewhat unique. The inherent ability to see, attract and put together these unique qualities creates tremendous value.”
What about thinking about it this way? Networking is there to harness and leverage the power of diversity for the greater good. No one ever succeeds alone. And many networking ‘critics’ get caught doing it without realising!
Ask Lord Alan Sugar, who called networking a “waste of time” and quotes in his book that ‘’what you see is what you get”. However, as successful businessman he is certainly not ignorant to the intrinsic value of his networks. Rupert Murdoch contacted him out of the blue to ask him to manufacture satellite dishes. Lord Weinstock, the Chairman of GEC, told him to 'go and see Sugar, he's the man who can bring a consumer electronics project to the market faster than anyone else. In fact, while Sony and Philips are still thinking about it, he will have them in the market for you.'
So, call it whatever you want to call it, but you have to start learning this skill if you are serious about business. So what, then, is the best way for a young entrepreneur to become an expert business networker?
“First of all, take advantage of your youth,” Andy chuckles. “So many experienced business leaders feel a strong social responsibility towards helping the young generation build a better future. Do your research and then dare to pick up the phone.”
I would argue even further and encourage you to involve them early, as advisors or mentors to leverage their business expertise and their own networks, creating a virtuous circle of added-value contacts.
“Secondly, build a diverse network, get plugged into circles with different backgrounds and different perspectives. This will only strengthen the chances of success for your future ventures. It’s the same strategy here: do your research and pick a handful of events to go to. Be consistent; become a regular and also let your network know what you are looking for,” adds Andy. This resonates curiously with the advice to build your personal brand by focusing on consistency and persistence, does it not?
Finally, focus on the richness of the relationship. It is firstly about connecting with people for who they are. It is not about what they may or will bring to you. Not many people realize this, but networking is about giving – and not about keeping score.
So for those of you who thought networking was about collecting as many business cards as possible, you’ve got it all wrong!
You may want to recalibrate your thinking and your strategy, as it is about creating the connection. “I would call it the ultimate form of social sophistication,” Andy notes, “as it requires you to be socially savvy and to help and support others, with genuine spirit. It also asks for you to immediately assess where you are on the trust ladder.”
Forget shallowness and a preconception about the other person’s value and likely needs. Don’t judge too quickly – people are surprising.
Think about networking as mode of building bridges. It takes a lot of research to understand what the environment looks like. That requires knowing who people are – so listen to them, observe them, and stay quiet. It takes a lot of patience and effort to get bridge building. It translates into giving the relationship enough time in being patient and consistent in your interactions. Then one day the bridge is there – and so is the relationship! However, you must keep your network alive and healthy. It requires regular attention and maintenance.
Marianne Abib-Pech is advisor to several European and Asian VCs and start-ups.