In today's VUCA world—characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—building a broad, diverse, and effective professional network is absolutely crucial. But networking is a two-way street, with constant give and take.
Many sales leaders, coaches, and talent development professionals will attest that mastering the art of networking is nearly a matter of survival. Especially for newcomers, networking can be one of the most effective ways to find clients, access fresh ideas, probe new solutions, and build a strong referral pipeline.
Clearly, networking is an essential tool for sales executives. But why do so many professionals fail to treat networking strategically and deliberately? Here are some strategies to help your sales team’s networking become more purposeful.
For some, networking comes quite naturally; for others, it demands intention and discipline. Extroverts working in sales typically use relationship building as a key element of their professional success. They consider themselves “natural sales people.” They learned early in their careers the value of relationships across all levels of organizations—from admin and support positions to high-ranking executives. They create a pool of connections (and sources of knowledge) across many different disciplines.
An extrovert's passion for getting to know others, regardless of any immediate interest or function of seniority, adds a great deal of authenticity and triggers trust in others. More importantly, they build relationships with purpose, but are not motivated by a particular need or situation. Their approach consists of casting a wide net to capture as many relationships as possible.
A great way to start building a network is by demonstrating curiosity and a desire to learn about a wide range of topics from a diverse group of people. This process demands authenticity (a genuine interest about the other person) and the practice of active listening (making the other feel like the most important person in the room).
Trust is an essential element to building a successful network. Keep in mind that trust is a journey you must take with each individual in your circle. For some in your network, you are in the beginning of the journey, while you have traveled a long way with others.
A great way to create trust—when you seek support from a particular contact within your network—is to demonstrate vulnerability. Seeking advice on a particular topic elevates the other person. However, note that the level of vulnerability must be in alignment with where you are in the trust journey.
If you are still in the beginning of the trust journey, it is important to elaborate as much as you know about a topic you may be discussing. You should convey any information you may have—so as not to appear “empty handed” in the discussion. On the other hand, when you are further along in the trust journey, you can be more upfront about what is not known regarding the issue and seek advice directly from the other person.
Selecting a “Board of Directors”
Despite its importance, relationship-building skills do not necessarily translate into a strong network. Although these relationships can enable sales reps to learn about other areas of interest and expertise, they must categorize these sources of knowledge within the network to effectively use them to address a diverse set of challenges.
It’s crucial to seek out relations with those who can offer advice on technical and professional matters, people management issues, and new business trends. Also look for relationships with people who can provide coaching on personnel issues and support when faced with unexpected challenges.
After categorizing the people in a network, the next step is to select the individuals who truly strengthen the network. In other words, select a “Board of Directors” whose expertise you can leverage to assist with decision making and analysis.
Nurturing the Network
Networking renewal—the process of recruiting (and letting go of) contacts is not only critical, but also a continuous process. It is equally important to maintain yourself as an attractive asset to your board and any new potential networks.
There are “unwritten” expectations among members of a network. You must remember to give as much as you receive. Indeed, reciprocation is critical for strengthening your network. Knowing the interests of those in your network will help you identify opportunities for giving. More importantly, as you build trust, and the level of quality and quantity of the contributions increase, the network strengthens. Keep in mind, though, that expectations also may expand.
Here are few final recommendations for sales executives to consider as they build their networks:
- Build a network that is broad—unexpected challenges will arise, and a broad network that you can leverage works almost like a “safety net.”
- Reach out to the maximum number of touch points, and then focus on the quality of the relationships.
- Approach people with authenticity—not just because you have a situational need or a specific interest in someone.
- Build a strong Board of Directors that you can leverage for your toughest challenges.
- Take every opportunity to give to others in your network—this will builds trust and nurture a long-lasting and effective network.