Networking is hot. Business schools offer classes that teach students how to network. Many of the hottest start-ups are built around the concept. But how many of us really understand how to build a network?
First of all, let me clear up the most common misconception about networking. It is not something you do to just to find a job or solicit clients. It is something you do to build lasting relationships that provide value to you for many years. People with who you conduct one-time transactions or exchange only financial resources provide you with temporary benefits. You meet them with a goal in mind and every interaction you have with them is intended to help you reach that goal. If you cannot achieve that goal, you typically stop communicating with them.
In contrast, “true” networking is the process by which you form relationships with people you can go to for support, advice, information (especially information that is unique and not easily available to others), specialized expertise, and/or creative inspiration. You may have some people in your network that provide you with all of these benefits and consider them to be your closest contacts. You may also have people in your network that provide you with only one of these benefits and you do not consider them to be very close to you. Research says that you should have both of these types of people in your network. Moreover, you should also have a diverse group of people in your network. The benefits of having such a network are that you get access to unique information, diverse skill sets that allow you to go beyond your own capabilities, and access to resources that you can leverage. Put simply, the power of networks is that, if done right, it can increase your effectiveness as a leader because it gives you access to information, skills and resources that would be much harder – if not impossible – to obtain by yourself.
So how do you build such a network? Here are some guidelines:
1. Be genuine. Do not seek to form a relationship with someone with a certain goal in mind. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to meet a certain person, you should focus on simply forming a relationship with that person. If you focus on what you can gain from the relationship, it is likely to be nothing more than a transactional relationship.
2. Follow the norms of reciprocity. If someone does something that benefits you, you should always return the favor. Not only should always give back as much as you get, you should give before you’re asked. The key is to reciprocate in a way that the other person will value. Since this varies for each person, the best way to learn how to reciprocate is to think about the interests of the whole person. For example, if a co-worker has done something to help you at work, you do not have to return the favor by doing something to help her at work. Instead, you can reciprocate by getting her some red velvet cupcakes because you know how much she loves chocolate or by letting her know that her favorite musician is coming to town and tickets happen to be going on sale in a few days.
3. Participate in shared activities. A shared activity is anything that allows you to come together with a diverse group of people – all of whom are working towards a common goal. For example, you can join a sports team, participate in a voluntary association, or be part of a cross-functional team at work. The best shared activities are those where the participants are dependent on each other, passionate about the activity, and have something at stake (“How to Build Your Network”, by Uzzi and Dunlap, Harvard Business Review, 2005).
4. Be pro-active. Take advantage of opportunities to expand and diversify your network. While this may require stepping out of your comfort zone, you can make it easier by asking your close network contacts for help. For example, instead of going to a social event by yourself, you can go with some of your close friends. This may make you more comfortable because you always have a “safety net” – if you try meeting new people and do not click with anybody, you can always go back to talking to your friends. You can also ask your close network contacts to introduce you to others in their network.
5. Perform network maintenance. Building your network is just half the story – you also have to maintain it. Make sure to set time for activities that allow you to keep in touch with people in your network. If possible, face-to-face activities are best. But this may not always be possible for a variety of reasons. If this is the case, then you can reach out by talking on the phone, sending birthday cards/gifts, writing emails, etc. This is where sites like Facebook can be useful. They allow you to send short messages to people in your network with minimal effort. You can wish someone a happy birthday or comment on their status updates.
Networking is a long-term investment. It takes considerable effort to build and maintain your network. But, if done well, the benefits to your life and your career are substantial.
Dr. Atul Teckchandani
CSUF Entrepreneurship Professor