Let’s be honest: not many people actually like networking. Ask a typical entrepreneur for his or her thoughts on this business necessity, and you’re likely to get a variation on one of the following excuses: “Almost all the events I get asked to are a waste of time” or “I always end up talking to the same people” or “I already know most of my customers/employees/partners, so there’s little point of making small talk.”
The common thread in these responses is that most people find networking to be a colossal waste of time. And it usually is; but not because networking is ineffective in itself, but because most people are doing it wrong.
Most people end up showing up at a networking event, making a beeline for people they know and then spend the allotted time talking with only those individuals with whom they are most comfortable. The event ends and—surprise!—they have met no one new, created no new relationships and done little to advance their professional goals.
It doesn’t have to be like that. I believe strongly that networking represents a leadership opportunity, albeit an opportunity usually cloaked in informality and lubricated by alcohol and tasteless canapés. Those people who can look beneath the seemingly superficiality of small talk can consciously use networking to strengthen and build relationships that are pivotal to long-term success. Here are six ways to network as a leader:
1. Make yourself go…
Networking effectively is tiring. It takes energy at the end of a long day to meet new people and create relationships out of nothing. Most of these connections will produce little to no long-term benefit. But some will.
I remember coming back from a vacation, exhausted, only to find an invitation from a lawyer friend of mine to a party. I forced myself to go and ended up being introduced to an impressive young woman that night. The connection we made was so good, I ended up marrying her two years later.
You may not meet your future spouse at a party or connect with a venture capitalist who can fund your new idea or meet the next big client whom your business needs… but you can be absolutely sure that none of those things will happen if you don’t go.
2. …but not to everything
Smart networking doesn’t mean going to every event you receive an invitation to. Turn down any events that will not afford you the opportunity to build relationships with individuals who will help you grow your business (or achieve whatever other goals you have set for yourself). If you are the CEO of a high net-worth asset-management fund, for example, you will be wasting your time accepting Board of Trade events. Instead, you need to be targeting events at which your clientele spend their time—high-end fundraisers, banquets, gallery openings, etc. Conversely, those are exactly the kind of events you should avoid if you are the head of a startup that focuses on attracting top engineering talent; instead, spend your time at conferences at which your future hires will congregate.
3. Prioritize whom you talk to
Once you arrive, avoid your friends (guess what: you already know them!) and instead be purposeful in seeking to meet the people who will help you grow your business. In some cases, this may mean identifying specific people—if you are at a conference and want to meet a featured speaker, make a beeline for that individual at cocktail hour. In other cases, identify the groups of people you wish to meet, then ask others to introduce you to them. If you are at a charity event focused on meeting new prospective clients, politely move on if you find yourself talking to personal friends. After all, you can always have them over for a glass of wine in your own home when the focus is not growing your business.
4. Don’t be a wallflower
Networking is about building or strengthening relationships. You won’t do that if you’re a shrinking violet. I remember one networking event at which I saw one of my clients hanging around the periphery of a group. She said little and never really was part of the discussion. Then, dinner started and the group broke up. The next day, we debriefed on a call; she was pleased that she had made a point of joining the group—which was composed of important partners in the U.S. division of her company. But she recognized that by not introducing herself, she had missed an opportunity to create new relationships.
The key is to physically face people, look them in the eye, extend your hand and introduce yourself with confidence. Ask who they are and respond enthusiastically.
5. Ditch the elevator pitch—at least, at the start
Effective networking depends upon reading your audience and selecting an appropriate topic. One cringe-worthy mistake often repeated comes from the overeager networker who has worked on his “elevator pitch.” This keener moves with great purpose toward his target—perhaps an industry thought leader—and unleashes his carefully rehearsed spiel with little regard to whether the time is right or the person is in the mood to hear their vision for “how our company will disrupt the telecom industry.”
Choose what to talk about by assessing how well you know someone. The general rule is that the less familiar you are with the person you’re speaking with, the safer and more generic the conversation will be. As you find some common ground in conversation, it will become easier to segue into a more substantive topic, such as the state of the economy and their thoughts on its impact on your company—a more effective way to ease into your pitch.
6. Stop shooting for the moon
A networking function is not the time to close a deal, make a sale, offer someone employment or consummate any other business transaction. Instead, it is an opportunity to build or strengthen a relationship, which sets the groundwork for the next step. This means you should end the conversation if it is going on past the point of your audience’s interest. It also means you should follow up within two weeks to build upon the connection. Connecting on LinkedIn is a good first step; but to really move the relationship forward, you should pursue a face-to-face meeting. Give your contact a reason to meet—perhaps you have a book for them that you’d discussed or you can do some quick analysis of their customer data. But, whatever you do, strike while the iron is hot. Just not when you’re in line together at the bar.
Bart Egnal is president and CEO of The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.
More columns by Bart Egnal