One of the earliest highlights of my career was learning Within any network group or networking crowd, often it is as much about helping people to connect through a seed of conversation. I am not saying to never take the lead in a conversation, but just to be conscious that sometimes there is more value in connecting other people to each other, than to yourself.
This humility and mindset opens your eyes to what is happening around you. You start to notice individuals or groups who appear outside the ‘flow’ of the networking event. Sometimes there is more than meets the eye to this observed isolation. For instance, there may be some gender, age, cultural, demographic, and educational barriers that your seed of conversation actions could help to dismantle. Shouldn’t we all strive to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace? Shouldn’t our actions be more than just those that serve ourselves?
- A point of commonality
- Network to give, not to get.
- Take active steps to connect
When networking, there is typically a wide variety of natural skills in initiating new conversations. For some people, they need to feel they have a topic or point of commonality to initiate a conversation with you. With that in mind, it is good to think about how you could provide a catalyst to enable this. It could be a lapel badge or a broach or the book you hold.
To elaborate on this, in my career I’ve had the pleasure to occasionally visit and work in one of the countries in central Africa. There was one peer who I worked with very closely and over the years we established a great rapport. One day he pulled me aside and asked if he could give me some personal ‘feedback’. I said of course he could and with that he promptly told me that my dark blue suits and white shirts were very ‘boring’. He went on to say that when I went out for local dinners or events in his country, people thought I was attending a funeral. With that we had a fabulous laugh and from that point onwards I always made sure I packed a few colorful shirts whenever I visited.
A few years later I had the honor of presenting at a conference here in Melbourne, run by the Australian African Association. As I stood on stage in one of the colorful shirts, addressing an audience of delegates from African nations, I used this story to open my presentation and explain my choice of shirt. Later in the day, when the conference pivoted from presentations and workshops to dinner and networking, that shirt and the story behind it, gave people a point of commonality to initiate a conversation with me.
Another important consideration is your mindset to networking. If I were to give one single piece of advice, it would be to network with the intent to give something, not to get something.
For those of you who network to only sell and get something, I know this piece of advice will make you cringe. However as someone who has managed external spend on a global scale, you start to put up the armor in networks where the only conversation you are having over and over again is the one you are being ‘sold’ to. You eventually “exit stage left”, and better still, with practice you start to recognize the networks to avoid. But it shouldn’t be this way.
Every leader, manager or aspiring professional needs to be across the emerging trends, the broader business landscape, the new technologies, the people, the competitors, the issues, and the various perspectives. Yes, there are podcasts and yes there are magazines but where else but through your network and by way of networking can you get true conversation. For me, the knowledge from varied and diverse conversations and the wisdom and cultural awareness it creates, is the fundamental benefit of networks and networking.
Finally, many of you reading this article will either be currently in, or have recently merged from, some form of COVID-19 related lock down or work restriction. If I am honest, my days have mostly been a blur of (virtual) work, home schooling, cancelled events and masked outings to the supermarket. The days also seem to have no sunrise or sunset and technically, whilst I should be banking hours each day from not commuting, I feel for some strange reason I have less time. Recently I started keeping a log of work hours, not to prove I am working, but to stop myself from excessively over-working.
In the context of this article and networking, and even work in general, I am still finding my way. Yes, I still log on daily and accept or make connections on LinkedIn, but that is not really networking is it? Nor is watching a live stream on mute with unknown faces in grid boxes on the screen. However, I am conscious that what we are facing right now will never feel normal, because it is not normal. Let’s not forget we are in the “Mesolithic” or middle phase of an unprecedented epidemic.
As I reflect and write this article, I realize I have used this “ISO” time to reconnect. I have called or written to former work associates. I have also reached out and thanked some of the people who added value to my career. I’ve even reconnected to the first person I ever placed as a Recruiter. Technically this is networking, but it is an inward journey, not an outward journey.
So, I will leave you with this final thought.
Perhaps we should all use this time to network with our past, restoring it in some ways, reflecting on the experiences and embracing the wonder of the people we have already met. This simple act of gratitude will be remembered, and by giving something to the known, the more mindful and appreciative we will be when one day we can step out again to embrace the unknown.