Networking is scary

The other day, I was having a meeting with someone at Mustache and Go, the new coffee shop on the Shore. As we were chatting away, it ended up being one of those days when person after person who came in, was someone I know. The person who I was with, to her credit, sat patiently, while folks came over shook my hand, made a moment of small talk and then went on their way. Every time I went back the conversation, another person showed up, until finally we could get back to our chat, at which point the person I was with said, who were all those people?
 
I sat back, a little shocked at my lack of consideration she wouldn’t know some of these community folk, and also a bit at myself for assuming that here, on the shore, most us know each other.
 
This started a conversation about networking.
 
“How do you get to know all these people?” she asked
 
Before I answer, let me share a little story from my Radio days in Whitehorse… it was way back in January 1995, and my fiancee and I had ordered wedding invitations for the ceremony that would be occurring in Kelowna, mid summer.
 
When the invites finally arrived, it was at a time when we had to make a quick move of homes, so the return (RSVP) address was incorrect, it was our prior address.
 
So, being who I am, I keyed on the mic one cold snowy day and asked my listening audience whether it was OK to use a sticker (on those very fancy cards) or whether we should re-order.
 
Fast forward about 8 hours, my fiance came home while I was in the Kitchen, stormed in and gave me a steely glare. “What were you talking about today?” she demanded.
 
So I told her what I was chatting about, and while she was a bit miffed about me chatting about that on air, she also understood that this was my network and when we need something, we go to those we trust.
 
Alright, my “network” in that case was about 18,000 people, but I got lots of advice..
 
Flash forward to my coffee chat, and we got into the Networking conversation.
 
For most people “Networking” is intimidating.
 
“What do I say?” “How do I start conversations?” “What value do I add to the discussion?”
 
These are all questions I’ve heard many times before.
 
Networking is actually not as complicated as some would have you believe. In most professional cases its initially built upon what you do, and how you can work together. However, the best networks go well beyond the cursory, they go to the personal details.
 
I once worked for a fellow who could remember your spouses name, the name of your kids, your dogs name, and many other details, even if he hadn’t seen you in years. It was scary how good his recall was.
 
Most of us though, like me, struggle with names. We recognize faces and try to remember a million details. I think that’s why stress about networking is so real. We stress about not remembering.
 
What is it that makes the networking become less stressful over time?
 
Its understanding that real networking has nothing to do with the professional roles that a person plays in community, instead its about the inter-personal relationship you develop. So the next time you are meeting or engaging someone you think you know, look beyond “who are you and what do you do” and start asking some key questions to know more about them.
 
This week, I have lots of meetings scheduled. While each one serves a core purpose (I don’t just go for coffee all day long) there is the “other” part of the meeting. By “other” I mean the connection part. The time when you chat about the “other” stuff in life, other than work. Yes, as professionals, it is the work we do that draws us together. However, when networking it is the chatting that leads to getting things done.
 
I used to joke after I had kids that I had joined the world’s largest club: the Parent Club. You get together with some other young professional and could talk about kid stuff, specifically; potty training, first words, first steps, and other milestones.
 
However, as we age, those simple connections become more distant. All the firsts have faded away and now we are relegated to the weather, sports and current events. Networking really does start to look different, because life is different. I have also heard somewhere that most of your life long circle of friends are pretty much set by 35. So, does that mean beyond this point its time to make new ones?
 
Professional Networking is kind of like making new friends. You find yourself in unfamiliar territory, without many commonalities (except who are you and what do you do), and struggle to find some way to build a relationship with a stranger. How do you navigate this professional challenge? (Hint – its the same as building personal relationships) You find out about the “Other” stuff.
 
Things I find to chat about usually include:
  • Running, as a RUNClub coach I tend to know lots of folks, so this is an easy start point for many of my conversations,
  • Hobbies and activities that the other person is into,
  • Kids, yes even at a plus fifty age I can still chat about kids, but now its more about University, Loans, and borrowing the car.
  • Business issues which may be common, or things I have knowledge about and can share.
Other strategies to improve the power of your networking include:
 
1) The Oriental Approach – When I was in Japan, I learned that the greatest sign of respect is to take a card in your hand, and read the card for a few seconds. This allows you to absorb the name and company the individual represents. To add to this, if you are handing over your card, always orient it toward the person receiving, so they can read it.
 
2) Dual Cards – You often will know that another person may give your card to another person, on your behalf. When this is the situation, feel free to present two cards, together.
 
3) Name Tags – Always have a name tag with you. I carry one in my car and have one on my desk, as you never know when you may have to run to an unexpected meeting. Also, having a name tag on, assists those who may have a challenge remembering names, especially if they don’t see you often.
 
4) Name Tag Placement – When you are shaking hands you instinctively turn in toward the person whose hand you are shaking. If you are right handed, you rotate to the left, if you are left handed you rotate to the right. Consider placing your name badge on the upper chest, on the side that rotates toward the other person.
 
5) Smile – Please don’t look like your cat just died. I may be uncertain why you are so upset. And, even if you aren’t happy to see me, please pretend, it will make me feel better.
 
6) Ask Questions – The best way to learn about someone else (which is exactly 1/2 the reason you network), is to be genuinely curious. If the whole conversation is about you, its not going well for the other person.
 
7) Service – Look for ways you can help the other person. While it may seem counter-intuitive, helping others does lead to your success. When you undertake service beyond self, you create professional and personal credibility and that is worth its weight in gold.
 
8) Hold the Sidebar – Sometimes the conversation you want to have, is not the conversation you should have, especially if others are listening. Hold sidebar conversations (more often called hallway chats) when its more appropriate and just be social when its a better fit.
 
I hope these thoughts help you to network more effectively, and find greater success in your professional relationships.