Networking or notworking?
I sometime joke that I’m off to a notworking event. When I have a lot to do, networking can seem like a complete waste of time as it doesn’t help me tick things off on my to do list. I’m not a natural networker, I’m more introvert than extrovert. In fact, I’ve had to learn how to do networking and I’ll share some tips on that in a moment.
Paradoxically, I’ve found some of the most valuable moments in my career to be moments that I thought least valuable at the time.
I count myself lucky that I have a large network of people that I know in the travel and tech space. It’s an accumulation of all the company events I’ve been to, networking events I’ve attended, LinkedIn connections I’ve made and relationships I’ve made through work over the years. Very few of those events seemed important at the time but this network is like a bank account that pays compound interest. Those contacts move on from company to company, the capable ones are promoted and end up in useful positions of influence. As a senior leader in my company, it’s my job to stay in touch with the outside world, stay abreast of trends and ideas. I also can connect people inside and outside the company. This all has value, and it is an accumulated value that I’ve nurtured over time.
Why is it important? For any new initiative I am venturing into the unknown. If there are people that have been there before I can ask for advice and support. Equally, I’m a big believer of “paying it forward” looking for opportunities to help others. Sometimes these favours payback, sometimes they don’t but they rarely cost a lot of effort and they are worthwhile in their own right because I am helping others on their own growth journey.
I am a member of a group coaching network (The COO Roundtable) where I meet monthly with my peers to share issues and problems we are working on. I attend industry conferences put on by partners such as Salesforce and Google. At these events I meet fellow executives. I sometimes attend conferences around a specific topic (e.g., this year I was at The AI Summit at London Tech Week). I mentor a startup founder once a month (where I always learn something even if I am the one being the mentor). I am involved in a local charity as Director, and I am the committee member of a couple of community groups.
“We are together. We are unified, and of one accord. Because together, we got pow-wow”
Lyrics from the song Come Together by Primal Scream
Pow-wow. If I’m stuck, rather than struggle on alone (such is my character), I’ve learned to ask myself who I know who could help. This is probably the single most important lesson learned in my personal growth journey. Who I know is often a result of networking. And the payback from networking is measured in years and decades, never on the day.
If you’re not a natural networker/notworker(!), here’s a few tips.
- Do your homework. Try and find the attendee list. Find something out about the companies or the people attending. Look at their public social feeds - this can be great for more personal icebreakers.
- Arrive early. In an empty room it’s much more natural to strike up conversations with other early arrivals. You’ll also have more time relax and get into the zone.
- Ask questions. At the end of a talk, stick your hand up, introduce yourself and your company and ask a question. It means everyone in the room now knows who you are and if they are interested, they may come talk to you in the break.
- Go up to someone that asked a question. “That was a great point you made at the end there. Hi I’m David.”
- If someone is alone just walk up to them and say hello. They probably feel as awkward as you do. Ask a simple question, one that opens a story that they can tell you to get to know you. What did you make of that talk? Did you have to come far today? Get them talking about themselves. Find something you have in common.
- Look at peoples’ feet in a group. If they are pointing at each other, they are deeply engaged in a conversation and you shouldn’t break their flow. If they are pointing outwards to the room, they are open to having someone join in.
- If there is food or drink and there are tables (e.g., standing tables) a simple, “Do you mind if I join you?” can be enough to join in.
- Practice explaining who you are and your role if you are asked. Give them something to respond to so that there’s a hook for a follow-on conversation. “Hi! I’m David, I’m Chief Growth Officer at Holiday Extras. That means I focus on strategy and marketing although I was a VC previously and have worked in a few startups. We’re based in Kent, and I live with my wife in Deal with four teenagers and a dog. How about you? Where do you live?” By doing this I’m not telling my life story, but I’ve provided 7 or 8 different things that someone might be interested in. Kent, teenagers, marketing, startups, dogs etc. You’ll be unlucky if there is no follow on and the conversation should develop naturally.
- Work the room. Don’t spend the whole session with one person. It’s natural and expected that you can break off.
- Introduce people. If you can, introduce someone you are speaking to another new person, explain what you are talking about. This makes the new person feel welcome and included.
- Take time out. Sometimes as an introvert I need to calm my head. I go to the bathroom and take five, reenergise and come back.
- Listen. A great listener is always welcome. Ask follow on questions and show curiosity.
I can’t say I look forward to networking but I’ve had practice and so I can do it. Like anything, you suck at it unless you practice.
Networking is not notworking. It just has a longer payback period. It’s one of those important but non-urgent things. It’s rarely a waste of time if you think of it as an investment in your relationships and knowledge.