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There are hundreds of articles and pieces of advice out there on effective networking and relationship building, but not many tell you how to leverage your network to maximize your opportunities and be poised for success. To leverage your network means being able to mobilize support, resources and information to your advantage when you need them.
You don’t have to be an extrovert or talkative, and nobody is naturally talented at this. Building a network is something that happens over time. You might even come to enjoy it after some practice, while reaping the rewards for your effort in your career. Besides doing prior research on the people you’ll be meeting to better understand what they do, it is equally important to keep in mind several principles that will boost opportunities to leverage your network.
Here are ten key pointers to keep in mind:
Don’t expect anything in return
Setting out with good intentions is more likely to bring rewards. While it is important to plan ahead and have an approximate notion of what you would like to achieve while networking, try to avoid going in with the expectation that whoever you meet today must give you something. Nobody owes you anything. Make a good impression and sow the seeds to build a lasting connection – that’s a crucial first step for you to take.
Ask what you can do for others
Just as you are looking to gain something while networking, so do the people you’re networking with. There’s no better way than offering your help by asking what you can do for them, because this forms the foundation for a strong relationship by showing them that you are genuine and not just seeking self-gain. By building this personal connection, you are placed in a better light and it will be easier to reach out to them in the future should you need a favor.
Think long term
As a leader in your company or industry, assess your future goals. Connections you make today can influence and impact your work in the long run. Look externally and network across different disciplines to better understand the environment you work in and fill the gaps with information on skills and sectors you don’t have. Besides improving yourself as an individual, this could potentially bring new business opportunities or complement your work in the future.
Listen and be respectful
“Challenge yourself to truly connect with the person who took time out of their busy schedule to talk to you”, explains Laura Lee, director of content partnerships for Google and YouTube, “and always say thank you. Pay attention. This lets you notice points that people have mentioned that you may pull into conversation later on, demonstrating that by freeing your mind to listen, you value them and their time.
Make them feel important
Asking someone straight up for a favor or funding might seem overly direct. Soften your approach and instead ask for advice from the person you’re speaking to. This lets them know that you find their knowledge valuable and allows them to draw on their experience, which is a great starting point as opposed to being pushy and overly aggressive from the start.
Remember to follow up
When was the last time you were expecting a reply from someone, waited for ages, and never heard from them again? That sucks. Maybe the person you met at that networking event isn’t anxiously waiting for a message from you, but it’s always good practice to follow up. If you have mentioned in conversation that you will reach out to the person, then do it. If they gave you a useful piece of advice, send a thank you note. Doing this shows your commitment to this new association and makes any future communication more natural.
Keep your network alive by making regular interactions with your newfound connections. This can be by giving some help or sending your congratulations on their achievements. The point is to make consistent enough contact so that it wouldn’t be awkward to reach them when you need to.
Find common ground
There may be times where it seems that you have no reason or excuse to approach someone because you have nothing in common. Look beyond work and identify areas where you might share interests. They are real people, after all, with various hobbies and passions. For example, if you both care about the environment, discussing ways you might improve the situation is a good entry point.
Make it a lifestyle
You don’t have to wait for someone to organize a networking event to be able to network. Do this on the daily: gather information from informal conversations, pick up personality quirks by paying attention and talk to people at all levels of the hierarchy.
As Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, shares: “Business is all about personal contact. If you discuss a work matter with an employee or a potential client over coffee rather than simply sending over an email, you’re more likely to build rapport, which will be useful if you ever need to tackle any problems together.” The more regularly you network, the more natural and efficient you become at it.
Keep at it
This is an effort that’s constantly in progress. By attending that conference, comparing feedback with your peers and always being in the know by stepping out of your comfort zone to speak to others, you strengthen your will to make and maintain effective connections. You might not see quick wins overnight, but you’ll be glad you started.
Practice, learn something new wherever you can, always smile and initiate the conversation. By keeping things personal and professional at the same time, you can show that you’re genuine and stand a better chance at leveraging your networks in the future when you need them.