Regardless of your role or career stage, building and maintaining a strong network is more important than ever.
In her new book, The 100-Year Life, co-author Lynda Gratton explains that increasing life expectancies mean we will all work longer and pursue multi-stage careers in several fields. Moving from stage to stage, and between sectors, will require us to reinvent ourselves and acquire new skills as the world of work and our interests and priorities change. The knowledge, skills, and contacts which will enable us to make these various transitions are to be found in our network. The more diversified our network is, the better.
Networking is simply about exchanging information with others and finding commonality to develop social and professional relationships, said Sally Hindmarch, founder of UK-based training provider Partners With You. “We are all networking all of the time, even while queuing for lunch,” she said.
It is also important to remember that relationship-building is a long-term process; there’s no pressure on you to sell something or achieve a particular outcome on the first meeting. Your network can support you in all sorts of ways, Hindmarch explained. “For people to recommend you or introduce you to one of their contacts, or give you recommendations for staff, etc., they need to trust you. For trust to exist, they need to like you, and for them to like you, they need to get to know you – that is the point of small talk at networking events. You have to give something of yourself.”
Hindmarch highlights five steps anyone can take to excel at networking. The techniques can help you look, sound, and feel more confident, leading others to perceive you as more competent.
1. Adopt a confident posture. The way we stand can either invite others to strike up a conversation or put them off. Slouching, for instance, gives the impression that you are apologising for your presence. Instead, stand with your feet, shoulders, and hips in alignment so your weight is evenly distributed. Imagine that there is an invisible thread running up through your body that comes out of your crown. If someone were to pull that string taut, you would stand a couple of inches taller. Then, imagine you are wearing a bolero (or matador’s) jacket and someone has pulled the back of it downwards, pulling your shoulders back and opening your chest. This stance looks open and receptive, and helps you feel more comfortable, making it more likely that other attendees will be receptive and open with you. For your spoken message to be perceived as sincere, it has to be matched by the physical image you convey through your stance and eye contact.
2. Ask open questions. Have some questions up your sleeve to get a conversation started. These might include: Where did you travel from? What do you do? Who have you come with? What did you think of the speaker? Asking lots of questions helps you shine the spotlight on other people, so that they feel important. Practise asking open questions beginning with what, where, who, when, why, and how. Prepare your own answers so you can contribute to the flow of the conversation, because it can be hard to do on the fly when you are nervous, Hindmarch said. Likewise, avoid giving a one-word answer. If someone asks where you’re from, for example, tell him or her an anecdote or a piece of trivia about your town, which gives the other person something to talk about.
3. Wear something distinctive. Another bit of preparation you can do to help you move the conversation past “hello” is to wear a distinctive tie, a piece of jewellery, or a badge of a charity you support. It can be anything that will draw the eye, prompt someone to remark on it, and get a conversation started. The important thing is to have a story about it (who gave it to you, why you bought it, why you support that cause) that can reveal something about you and your interests, and help develop a rapport.
4. Know when and how to extract yourself from a conversation. If your goal in attending the event is to meet lots of new people, it’s important to know how to move on politely. If a conversation is going really well, but getting a bit too detailed for such an occasion, Hindmarch suggested saying something such as “This is really interesting. Could I possibly ring you and have a proper conversation about it?” If the person is giving useful advice, you might want to make an appointment to explore the subject in more depth. Once you have exchanged contact information, it is much easier to say, “Thank you for this. I’ll be in touch. I’m going to move on now.” If you are simply looking to make a polite exit, try: “I have enjoyed our conversation, but I promised to meet X here. Would you excuse me?” Alternatively, remind the other person that you both went to the event to mingle, saying, “I’m sure you want to meet as many people as possible, too.”
5. Follow up. Following up with your new contact is a crucial step that many people fail to take. The first meeting is just the start of a relationship. If you took someone’s card, send him or her a note to say, “Hope our paths cross again.” If you said you would call someone or promised to send a report, article, or recommendation, make sure you do it. If you don’t deliver what you promised, your contact will infer things about you and your ability to deliver in your profession, Hindmarch said. Following up provides an opportunity to build trust and rapport. Ask yourself, “Is there something I can do to help this person?” such as send him or her your company’s white paper about a topic the person is working on. Consummate networkers give the first referral and always thank others when they provide one.
—Samantha White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.