Networking - what's the point?
Everyone has networks. Whether they are your group of friends that you socialise with, the colleagues that you work with, the folk at the sports club that you spend your time with at weekends or the parents of your children’s friends, we all have networks. We have been forming them from an early age – the friends we make at school, at university or college and then as we begin our working lives. We rely on relationships for support and help, to enable us to get things done and because fundamentally, we like being part of a group – indeed, we have a need to be part of a pack, to be ‘in the gang’ or to belong. It is a basic emotional need.
And so we cultivate our networks – we identify people that we get on with, that we relate to, that we have something in common with and our networks grow and develop. Yet for the most part, we do it intuitively and without thinking about it. When our partners suggest that we have friends round to dinner, we think about the mix of people that we are going to invite. From our (hopefully!) long list of friends, we consider who will get on with whom; whether the conversation around the dinner table will be enjoyable, humorous and stimulating, perhaps even connecting possible future partners in a ‘blind date’ and then we try and put together a guest list that meets those needs. We are networking.
Yet when we talk about networking in business, most people either admit that they simply don’t pay any attention to it, or they see it as an ‘optional extra’ – another task that has to fit into an already crammed diary. And because it is thought to be additional it is ignored, because, of course, we can all think of something more important that we have to do. Even if people try to connect with us, because we cannot see the immediate value in making a new connection, it is the first thing to be dropped from the diary. However, unless we invest time in networking, we are limiting our ability to achieve our full potential and the potential to grow and develop our businesses. The sad reality is that most people fail to appreciate the power of a strong network – they don’t realise that they need a network until they need it and by that time, it may be too late.
Modern organisations increasingly rely on matrix based structures – where relationships have to be developed outside of hierarchies and conventional layouts and where influence is the way to get things done because command and control simply will not work. Those who do not invest time in developing a strong network are destined to fail and those who do it well, not only succeed, but also tend to get promoted, for they deliver their task and enhance their reputation in one. Networking is a core skill.
There’s nothing new about networking. In his book 'The Tipping Point', Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Paul Revere’s midnight ride on 18 April 1775 to mobilise the militia as the English forces advanced on Lexington. Revere’s social network was so well-developed that those within it also took to their horses and, before long, a significant number of militia had been alerted. It was a classic case of Revere making his network really work for him. Revere wasn’t the only rider sent out to raise the alarm – a second person, by the name of William Dawes, also set off, heading south, while Revere went north. Dawes was able to alert a few people, but he did not have the same well-cultivated social network as Revere had, so Dawes failed by comparison. Revere was a social network broker.
When you think that it is time to move onto a new role or challenge in a different environment, unless you have a well-developed network, life is going to be very tough indeed. Around two thirds of people find their next job through their own network, rather than through more ‘conventional’ channels which would not only suggest that you need a good network of supporters and allies who know about you and your capabilities, but, also, you need to be focussing your time on talking to them, rather than sending your CV to recruiters.
Really good networking isn’t a random activity. It isn’t about accumulating business cards or having hundreds or even thousands of connections on LinkedIn. Networking is for anybody and everybody – it transcends hierarchies and builds confidence. Why wouldn’t you want to do it, and do it well? There is no downside to effective networking.
Nonetheless you need to have a plan. You have to understand what the purpose of networking is; you need to understand how you are going to make the right connections to achieve that purpose and then you have to work towards that outcome. What’s more, you need to know the unwritten rules of networking – the informal ‘dos and don’ts’ and the social graces. Do it badly, and it can be incredibly harmful, but do it well and it’s wonderfully rewarding. Networking is just like another project, you have to treat it that way and that is where most people fall down. As with any other investment, whether it is time or money, the payback isn’t immediate, nor is it always obvious, but rest assured, an investment of time in networking rarely doesn’t pay off.
This article was originally published by David Sole OBE on LinkedIn
David also co-authored a book on 21st-Century Networking available for purchase on Amazon