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How to network strategically

Subscribe to Leadership Development 4/24/2017 Billy Dexter

How to network strategically

I’ve been fine-tuning my approach to networking for over 25 years, but even at a young age I valued making connections and creating sustainable relationships. It wasn’t until later in life, after becoming a professional, that I truly understood the value of networking in creating relationship currency—the result of developing relationships and connections that matter.

Over the years, I saw I was creating a process that made my networking more of a science. I discovered this after doing some research on networking, and this realization helped me create even stronger relationships. To this end, I developed connections with many people and expanded my network, but my networking didn’t end there. Effective networking meant staying in touch with my connections and also introducing people to others to further their success.

I realized not only that networking and relationships were currency but also that networking was one of the top skills one needs to be successful in a career or business. What’s more, the relationships you build add up to define how people view you. If they view you as a value-added resource, people will refer business to you. If they don’t, you will find you don’t get as many referrals as you could be getting.

Start by building a wise networking philosophy. Don’t make building your network just about creating a safety net in case you lose your job, or a circle of connections that will help you get meetings to sell your products or services, or having someone who can open doors that will allow you to rub elbows with leaders in your industry. Your network is so much more than that, and as such, your philosophy should be something deeper and focused on how you can, first, help others.

The science of networks validates that the rule of reciprocity works when the parties involved have no hidden agenda while offering support to someone else. The reason is that, when you have ulterior motives, others will see through your support and you will lose the focus that is needed to truly benefit others. This focus is about you being authentic and transparent.

Toward strategic networking

Strategic networking begins with building a values-based personal brand. What is your personal brand? Start by taking an inventory by answering the following questions:

  • What are you known for at work? Is it your ability to listen well, or perhaps you are the person who plans all the outings for your team, or maybe you are the connector who is constantly introducing the new people to those seasoned in your organization?

  • What are you known for among your friends? Might it be your clever stories or your fun-loving attitude about life? Or could it be your constant thoughtfulness?

A second component of strategic networking is building trust, or transference of trust. This is the outcome of people either introducing you or referring you to others in their networks that you have yet to meet. The power of transference of trust makes for ongoing growth of the networks of all parties involved.

If you’re good at building relationships, opportunities will present themselves. The best way to get a job, new client, or customer is to know someone who knows someone or, even better, to know someone who knows many “someones.”

But challenges arise when you meet people who only want to meet those who can do something for them. These are takers. Taking, of course, is the wrong way to approach networking. Your focus should be on making connections that are mutually beneficial. But what does that strategic process look like? How does it feel?

A third step is to think about building a network with intention. Be strategic and deliberate when engaging with your networking partners by considering how to exchange opportunities—not just today but for the long term. It’s about building a quality-versus-quantity foundation. This means focusing not on the number of people we can get to be in our network but, instead, on those who are ready, willing, and able to connect and exchange support, ideas, and opportunities with one another. Don’t waste your time on takers. The world is full of them. You may start networking with a large number of people before you start trimming or weeding your network to identify those few quality connections. But focus on developing quality networks as soon as possible for the best networking results.

Getting started

Following are some strategies you can undertake immediately:

  • Network down as well as up. Networking down is about being the mentor. All people are worth the time it takes to let them know they’re important and to provide them with guidance as to how to grow successfully.

  • Treat each person you meet with uncompromising respect. Great networkers are zealots of respect and integrity. They care about creating relationships of honor.

  • Suspend judgment when you meet someone new. I make it a rule to give each person the opportunity to move toward the possibility of a partnership.

  • Be creative when thinking of people to contact. Start with people who really like you and brainstorm with them. Get them to give you a few names of people they really like but for one reason or another you have never met.

  • Connect the unconnected. Research on human networks shows us that the real secret to creating a diverse, continuous, and ever-growing flow of new business or career opportunities is to look for people who have yet to be connected. John may be looking for information about Company B and your colleague who works there, Susan, whom John has yet to meet. By linking the two together you create value for John and very likely Susan, who can benefit from knowing someone who may very well become a new team member at her organization.

  • Help people feel wanted. Recognize that most people want attention. Search for the uniqueness in others. Help them to feel significant. Do this by finding just one or two things about what they have said that you find most beneficial to you. Disclose your thoughts in a blog post or in person, or mention them on Twitter.

At its core, a successful networking process starts with listening. This can be face-to-face or online. By listening to each of the people we meet when we’re networking, we are able to find what matters to them and, from there, help them through our connections. Also, our respective ideas for growing our careers or businesses move ahead faster. You can do the same. It’s easy. What are your current networking partners interested in? What are their jobs? What do they do in their spare time? What is a fun day for them? Connecting with people is about being honestly interested in what makes them tick.

As we strategically implement the science of networking, we should always keep in mind the art. This is where the human, intuitive side of things comes into play. To help you do that, consider these suggestions: Become an active listener. Stay open to new ideas. And stay genuine—be authentic. In conclusion, a vibrant network starts and sustains itself with people who care about connecting and who then help others connect through thoughtful introductions.


About the author

Billy Dexter (bdexter@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office, and the Americas Champion for Diversity & Inclusion. He is a member of the Financial Services, Human Resources Officers, and CEO & Board practices.

This essay is excerpted from Making Your Net Work: Mastering the Art and Science of Business Networking, by Billy Dexter and Melissa G. Wilson (February 2017, Networlding Publishing).

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