A couple of months ago, I was invited to a lunch debate on current affairs at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto. There was a networking reception scheduled before the debate and since my colleague, who was supposed to join me for the event, had to cancel at the last minute due to a work commitment, I found myself walking into a room full of strangers. We have all been there. Whether it is a professional or a social event. At the time my colleague cancelled, I thought it was perfectly fine to rock up by myself and introduce myself to random people. However, when I walked into the room without spotting a familiar face, I was slightly overwhelmed by the task of making new ‘friends’ from scratch. I regretted not having prepared a strategy of how to approach people and what to talk to them about. To keep busy, I ordered a coffee and munched away on one of the dry cookies being served. After twenty minutes of hovering around the coffee bar, I still had not made a single connection and was desperately trying to come up with an approach to work this room. I did not know where to start. I did two more rounds around the room, picked up some more dry cookies along the way, pausing for a sip of my now lukewarm coffee. I really had to stop myself from pulling out my Blackberry to pretend I had very important business matters to attend to ASAP.
Networking. No matter what your job is or what your social life looks like, you probably have been exposed to some form of networking. My bf and I moved from London a year and a half ago, and we have never been presented with more networking opportunities than here in Toronto. Through our jobs, we get invited to a world of events where we get a chance to mingle with prominent Canadian and foreign politicians, bankers, journalists, lawyers, artists, writers, you name it. For us, it is a great way to expand our professional networks and perhaps meet some new friends. But, how to create a valuable network? A network that catches you when you fall, lifts you up, keeps you going strong and gives you the mental, intellectual and spiritual stimulation to move in the right direction.
My recent experience at the Shangri-La actually turned out better than the introduction might suggest. After the cookie run, I adapted the ‘small talk’ approach to break the ice (which always works) and met a number of interesting people with whom I still have contact today. However, I did make a note to myself to get a bit more strategic about networking, which is why I am writing this post.
To be honest, I have done quite a bit of networking in my life, especially during my time working in Brussels and London. And although I do not claim to know all the secrets, I certainly learned some valuable lessons about what works and what does not. My key advice would be to ask yourself four questions to help define your strategic approach.
Question number 1: WHAT is my goal?
Identifying your goals
It is important that you determine the purpose of your networking effort. What is it that you would like to achieve? A new employer? A friendship? Mental support? A marriage? Career Advice? New Business? Especially when starting from scratch, networking can be overwhelming and organizing your efforts into purpose driven buckets can be extremely useful, both for identifying your needs and for establishing a valuable network.
Identifying other people’s goals
And while you are at it, you might want to think about what you can contribute to other people’s goals. It is important to listen to others and to find out what they would like to achieve. Helping out other people can create a boomerang effect. We all know the old saying; Love and be loved. This can also be applied to networking.
Communicating your goals
Once you set yourself one or more goals, it cannot harm to let other people know about your intentions, without being too explicit obviously. I did experience that the earlier in the process people indicate what their intentions are, the more efficient and effective networking becomes. For instance, when I quit my job in London to move to Toronto, my goal was crystal clear; to find a job ASAP. I communicated this goal to anyone who wanted to hear it and within a month, I had three job offers.
Question number 2: WHO can help me achieve my goal?
Mapping goals to audiences
Now that you have one or more goals down on paper, you have focused your networking lens. The next step is to map your goals to potential audiences. By defining characteristics, qualifications, connections, personal and professional interests, etc., you can start forming a profile of the type of person that you might be looking for. When doing this, I would recommend not to focus your efforts too narrowly on one particular person for each goals. The path to the person that will eventually help you achieve your goal will likely lead you by a few other people first before you reach your destination. When you meet someone for the first time, it is unlikely that you will immediately figure out how valuable that person is going to be in achieving your goals. The key to painting a picture of your audience is to help you focus.
Question number 3: HOW to approach my potential target?
Who wouldn’t help a nice person? People are more inclined to help someone when they feel some level of compassion or genuine sense of friendliness towards them. I do not think anyone can argue anymore that Facebook pages or Twitter profiles with 1.4k followers or ‘likes’ have no influence. Both likeability and a good sense of humor are a great start for a good relationship. Intelligent conversations and business exchanges can follow later. Building on strong relationships is important. Generally speaking, I find that the people that have added most value are those with whom I have had a strong personal relationship. My personal experience is that quality trumps quantity and small strongly connected networks are more efficient and valuable than large loosely connected ones.
Personally, I think there are not many networking situations where both sides benefit mutually from the deal. In most cases, there is a supplier and a demander. In the event that you are the demanding party, you have to consider what the incentives might be for someone to help you. A good start is to define what you have to offer, write it down and keep it in mind, so it is ready to be presented when the networking opportunity arises.
Question number 4: WHERE are my network opportunities?
Everywhere. Literally everywhere. Your goal and your expected audience may give you some indication of a likely location, but it is not a guarantee. Sure, the chance that you run into your ideal new employer in the Starbucks queue may be relatively small, but that person in the Starbucks queue could potentially be someone on your path to that employer. Keep your eyes and ears open (and not on your phone) wherever you go.
Last week, I put the theory to the test and guess what? It worked. The opportunity was another organized networking event, which I attended on behalf of my company. Before attending, I set myself a specific (business) goal, sketched out my ideas of the preferred audience and prepared my offer. Having a concrete ‘deliverable’ helped me to approach people, direct the conversation and scan the room for potential ‘suppliers’. After chatting with several people throughout the evening while placing subtile hints related to my goal, I was introduced to someone who could assist me with achieving my target. Although we only spoke for a few minutes, I was able to deliver my prepared pitch and make some concrete suggestions on how to move forward. Today, I followed up and got concrete results. This of course doesn’t happen every time and was lucky in a way to ‘sealing the deal’. However, I am convinced that my strategic approach to networking that evening helped to deliver this tangible result.