The Art of Business Networking

“Networking” is a word I often see accompanied by a slump of the shoulders, a groan or a roll of the eyes – in both women and men. We know it’s critical to our business and career success, but so often when we think “networking” we think stiff smiles, exposing ourselves to rejection from strangers and time wasted when we could be vegging after a hard days’ work. Because like it or not, when you engage in it intentionally – as an investment in your career, your business and your efforts to change the world – it is work.

However, work doesn’t have to be hard.

Remember how early in your career writing an important email could take you an hour? You struggled to get the language and the tone just right? Now you can bang it out in five minutes, but you had to focus on it to get the skill down. Business networking isn’t quite the same, but it is a business skill that can be learned so that it doesn’t have to take so much energy and so that you can weave it into your work life naturally.

There are lots of good advice columns out there for how to think about networking events, including this one from our own Stacey Gordon, so I’m not going to repeat them here. I’m going to give you a new way to think about networking and a new definition of success for your networking efforts.

How Do You Know Networking Is Successful?

Most of us default to a narrow definition of success when it comes to networking. We think we’re successful if we attend an event and meet someone who can help us immediately. Give us a job, introduce us to a vendor we need, meet a new client. Sometimes this happens and it’s great – a clear payoff – but research says that networking’s primary benefit is not at the event itself.

This fascinating study from The Toulouse School of Economics says that a key factor in how men advance into upper management is that they develop through their careers a broad and shallow network of connections. By developing such a broad network, they are exposed to more potential opportunities and thus tend to have more opportunities. By contrast, women tend to develop fewer ties that run deeper. While these can certainly pay off, they do not lead to as much potential exposure.

Thus, a key definition of networking success is to look at how much any single event or activity expands your network of “shallow” connections. Over time you can look at your networking success in terms of how extensive your shallow connection network is and in what ways it benefits you. This takes the pressure off the events and activities themselves and puts it on the quality of your network as a whole.

I personally find LinkedIn fabulous for managing this shallow network, which I consider a business asset. Not only does it allow me to follow up with people I meet at events (i.e., sending them a LinkedIn invite) but also brings me periodic opportunities as people seek me out or I find them and connect about a particular project or question. It does take “work” to maintain, but when you take the pressure off yourself to make every connection payoff in a huge way, more frequent, smaller connections become easier. Here are simple ways you can put on your calendar to maintain your LinkedIn network:

  • Post or respond to status messages weekly
  • Look at your LinkedIn update emails and find one person’s news you can respond to (e.g., congratulations on a new job)
  • Create lists of contacts interested in similar subjects and post an update to one a quarter (so no individual gets more than one a year.)
  • When you need information or resources, mine your LinkedIn network for people to ask (and help them when they ask you.)

There are plenty of other ways to maintain your shallow network and you should find the way that is most natural to you. The point is that you need to build one and maintain it so that you are present in other’s minds when opportunities come up.

What If It’s Not Paying Off?

For many years I had an extensive network (online and offline). It paid off here and there but not consistently and I used to wonder what I was “doing wrong.” Now it’s working much better for me and in studying career development strategies for my coaching practice I realize why. Your shallow network connections can only help you if they think of you in association with the kinds of opportunities you are looking for. If you were out there saying you wanted small business clients in 2010 and then in 2011 you got a new job targeting larger corporations – but forgot to mention this to your network – they’re looking for the wrong kind of client for you!

This means that in addition to growing your network, you need to refine your “pitch”, which includes not only how you describe who you are and what you do, but how you help people and who you help. When your pitch changes substantially, make sure you update people who can help you most. What I’ve learned is that your pitch is always evolving – just like you are – and that’s ok. The key is to get it clear in your mind at any point in time and have a simple way of introducing yourself that people can remember. If you’re onto a big idea, let them know about that too, but if not, don’t sweat it. Just make a personal connection and add the ones that seem interesting to your shallow network and move on. Once they’re in your network you’re likely to run into them again and maybe that’s when your big idea and their network will intersect beautifully.

How do you build and maintain your shallow network? How has it worked for you in the past? When’s the last time you updated it? Is your current pitch likely to help people help you in the ways you most want?

Got a BIG IDEA you want help pitching? Come to our Pitching 101 free webinar and download a free pitching worksheet to help you get your pitch down pat!