I speak and write about networking quite a lot. In fact, I’m working on publishing a book about networking and will speak about this topic at the upcoming 2017 ATD International Conference & Expo in Atlanta this May. I have an idea that can help you enhance your networking habits in 2017 and beyond, and a challenge. Ready?
First, let’s get on the same page about what networking is and isn’t. Networking has a bad rep with some people (okay, a LOT of people). When a lot of us think about networking, we immediately equate it with networking events and shaking hands, having meaningless small-talk conversations with strangers we don’t care about, and then looking for the hand sanitizer bottle.
Am I right?
But that’s not what networking needs to be. In fact, true networking is all about building and nurturing meaningful, mutually beneficial, long-term relationships.
That outcome can’t be accomplished by going to an event, although of course it can start with a conversation with someone you meet at an event. Or you could nurture an existing relationship by running into someone you know at an event and connecting with them again.
So, while events can play a role in networking, networking does not equal events.
Networking does not equal small talk
When we see networking as building mutually beneficial relationships, we realize that it involves a lot of long-term give-and-take. As a matter of fact, I usually advise stacking the deck in your favor by giving first, giving more than you take over time, and giving often.
If you ever need help or a favor from anyone in your network, they’ll be way more eager to help you when you’ve created a positive, generous imbalance in the relationship over time. Humans are hardwired with an instinctive desire for reciprocity.
“But…but…” (or barriers to networking)
In the workshops that I lead about networking, I sometimes guide learners to list the barriers that keep them from networking enough. Can you guess what the top two barriers to networking are for these hundreds of learners all over the country?
People perceive that they don’t have enough time or they feel shy or uncomfortable networking (or what they mistakenly perceive of as networking).
But now that we’ve established that networking is the long-term pursuit of mutually beneficial relationships, I hope you realize that we need to view it as a long game if we want to give and gain the benefits of this endeavor.
And when you play the long game, it doesn’t happen in big, singular leaps or heaps of activity that require a ton of time. It is more like a constant drip-drip-drip of small, intentional actions over time. That means that you can, and should, “do networking” in lots of tiny little increments.
Small actions are quite manageable for busy people and not very intimidating even if you’re shy. Meaningful small actions to build and nurture relationships also can happen in ways that fit your communication preference and personality, so they don’t even have to be face-to-face and definitely need not be relegated to group interactions. Introverts rejoice!
And what does this have to do with brushing teeth?
I often use the metaphor of brushing teeth to help people think about networking differently. If you’re like most of us, you probably brush your teeth regularly. Also, you probably don’t do it because it is a passionate pursuit or your favorite activity of the day.
Most of us probably do it more as a habit, built over months and years, that we recognize is in our long-term benefit. We have built this habit by repeating it daily for many years. For most of us, it’s not a habit we enjoy or love particularly. Nor hate. We just do it, and we don’t even think about it too much.
But it wasn’t always this way. If you have kids or know people with kids, you know that brushing teeth is not something we’re born doing or valuing. If you’ve ever tried to teach kids to brush teeth, you know that at first, you must do it for them, and then you have to coax them and nudge them over and over to get them to get into the habit and stop wanting to skip it.
Start small and just build habits
We can make networking a habit that we build by incorporating small actions into our daily life that don’t take a long time or require a lot of decision-making resources from us! Small, easy, quick, simple actions we habituate and cultivate intentionally, proactively, mindfully into our daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly practice.
It could be something as simple as writing a thank you note or email, or thanking someone in person, and doing that every day for, say, five or 10 minutes. That could be a networking practice because you are nurturing your relationships with a give.
Another example could be that once each day, or once a week, you introduce two people from your network that you think could benefit from knowing each other. That doesn’t take very long and you could just make it a habit you do it at some regular frequency. (Best practice: Make sure it’s a double-opt-in introduction.)
Or it could be sending someone a relevant and helpful article every day. That is also a form of giving that nurtures that relationship.
What if you decided to meet three new people every day? At the coffee shop, the water cooler, in the grocery store, at the PTA meeting, or even in the elevator. Wherever you already are, you could challenge yourself to meet three new people today.
All those activities add up in the long term to help you maintain and nurture meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships. Just like brushing teeth: One brushing session is not that meaningful but as a habitual practice, the benefits compound in the long run.
A networking challenge for 2017
I’ve challenged myself and I challenge you: Let’s make 2017 the year in which we build a tooth-brushing-style networking habit.
Are you in? Comment below and let us know what you’ll incorporate into your habitual practice in the coming year, and let’s get a conversation going!
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