It is often said that your personal value is not what you know, but who you know. This is powerful motivation for recent graduates to build their personal networks. Those of us of a certain age may have concluded that we already have enough friends and contacts; the challenge is making the best use of those that we already have.
The mathematics supports this argument. If you have been in business over twenty years, you probably have more than 150 close contacts, defined as people you like and respect and would recognise if you bumped into them out of their normal work context. If you add to this all the people in their close networks, this aggregates to potentially more than 20,000 agreeable and interesting people.
It is not a problem to identify other networking prospects; we all have a drawer full of business cards and often a large number of on-line connections. The dilemma is how to successfully leverage one’s existing contacts without in the process appearing sleazy and manipulative.
The most important lesson to learn from the best connected individuals is that little of their networking activity is carried out with any specific business goal in mind. They concentrate their effort on people they most like and who seem to like them right back.
Even for the shyest individual, all that is required to leverage their network is to generate a list of people whose company they have enjoyed over the years and invite them to a private dinner. This would be apropos of nothing in particular other than the pleasure of good company and an opportunity for their friends to meet other interesting people.
The tools for engineering a mutually successful outcome of such events are well explained by one of Europe’s leading business networking strategists, Andy Lopata. His site explains that connecting is not enough; it is important also to determine how well your contacts understand what you do and then how inspired they might be to provide a referral.
Lopata provides in-depth networking training and coaching and is always amazed to discover how few companies have an effective referral strategy. One investment bank merely had a system for asking for two referrals at the end of every meeting, regardless of whether they had actually built up any trust with the client. Lopata explains that the chances of receiving a referral are greatly increased if they understand exactly what you do, has a high level of trust and fully understands exactly how you help people, and the problems you solve.
Everyone understands that we are all fundamentally in business of generating profits for our companies and in the process earn a decent living, but your chances of receiving a referral are greatly increased if you are also perceived to have a wider purpose to your working life. This may not be as noble and altruistic as working for a social enterprise solving problems in the developing world, but you should at least demonstrate how you can make the process of business in general more fun and interesting by your own personal efforts.
Lopata recommends making a detailed assessment of your best contacts; the people they know, their willingness to refer you to them and how exactly you might inspire them to make that valued introduction, for free. While some people offer direct financial rewards for referrals, seasoned networkers mostly make introductions on the basis that everyone gains real benefits, including the prospect of referrals in return.
While high-level networking is primarily a face-to-face activity, Lopata agrees that on-line tools greatly accelerate the process. LinkedIn is probably the best tailored for this purpose; you can connect with people you know, like and trust and can also search specifically for long-lost colleagues from former companies whom you remember as being fun and interesting.
If you explain yourself and your purpose well, they should happily provide referrals to their best contacts, primarily on the basis that both of you would both enjoy meeting each other; any subsequent business would represent a bonus, rather than the prime objective.
Expert networkers like Lopata work on the basis that if you connect with your network on this mutually beneficial basis, the financial rewards will definitely flow. He explains that it is who knows you and what they say about you which determine the true value of your network. Successful networking should be genuinely selfless and altruistic, always giving referrals without remembering your simple favour, and receiving them without forgetting their kind gift.
Andy Lopata can be found at www.lopata.co.uk