Quick, name your top priorities as CEO of a growing startup. Funding? Sure, of course. That’s huge. Hiring? Yes, especially in the beginning, when getting the right team in place is so important. Product development? Check. Managing growth? You bet — and what a great problem to have.
To those responsibilities, all of which you’d expect at the top of a CEO’s list, I’d add one you might not expect: networking.
If you’re like a lot of executives, you might tend to brush off the idea of networking. After all, with everything you’ve got on your plate, it might seem like something of a luxury to spend your already scarce time on thought leadership conferences or non-working lunches.
But I’d advise you to think again. In my experience as head of a growing startup, networking — or “creating a fabric of personal contacts who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources, and information,” as someone once defined it in the HarvardBusiness Review — is vital. It gives you a wealth of resources to help with everything from building your customer base to building your management team.
The key is to network wisely, which you can do by following these seven simple principles.
Strive for quality, not quantity.
You don’t need to attend every event or meet every influencer in your industry to network successfully; with your limited time, you couldn’t even if you wanted to. Whether you’re talking about how many people you connect with or how much time you spend with them, it’s the quality of those connections that really matters. So how do you decide who to connect with? One CEO recommends you focus on a few people who know a lot of people. That’s a great way to expand your network without direct relationships with more people than you have time for.
Make an effort to remember the people you have met.
Dale Carnegie once said “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” I personally believe one of the cardinal sins of networking is forgetting someone you have already met, or even worse, remembering them by the wrong name. A great friend and mentor of mine, Pike Powers, has the uncanny ability to remember everyone’s first name and a meaningful personal fact about that individual. This skill has made him one of the most beloved members of the professional community. While we may not all possess his gift of memory, you can certainlylook for techniques to help you remember your contacts. And if you can’t quite recall where you have met someone, do the next best thing: be honest and admit that you don’t remember where you have met, but that you’re excited to reconnect.
I believe that one of the most important things you can do when meeting others is to be yourself. In a professional environment, it can be unclear how much you should reveal about yourself vs. putting on a facade that you think people want to see. In a Harvard business review article, they offer advice on “How to Be Yourself, But Carefully.” While I think it’s important to be self-aware and not cross certain boundaries, it’s equally important to not force a personality that isn’t yours. The nuances of your natural character are the things other people will remember about you.
Spend time on important social networks.
Growing your business network by cultivating a few people who know a lot of people is the principle behind social networking, which happens to be another very useful networking resource — particularly LinkedIn, with its focus on business connections. But it takes some effort. Make a habit of spending some time on social media making strategic connections and, if you can, sharing or creating relevant content and being active in discussions. The point isn’t to spend a lot of time on it, but to spend time regularly. If all you do is sign up and wait for something to happen, you’re going to be disappointed.
Offer to use your network to help others.
When you have the opportunity to help someone in your network, extend a helping hand and don’t expect anything in return. Whether it is an introduction, a lead or any other non-material contribution, proceed with the genuine intent of helping the other person. Outside of an actual business deal, this karmic currency goes a long way when it comes to relationship-building and you never know when it will come back to help you. Networking guru Ivan Misner talks about a phenomenon he calls the network disconnect, describing how all the hands in the room go up when he asks audiences at industry events who’s hoping to sell something at the event — but no hands go up when he asks who’s hoping to buy something. But networking’s a two-way street, and before you can reap the rewards, you’ve got to sow the seeds of relationship-building. When you meet people who are in a position to help you with your business challenges, think about how you can help with their challenges. As Misner says, it’s not about networking, it’s about networking right.
Remember that little things mean a lot.
When time is at a premium, it’s easy to become impatient and forget everyday niceties. But trust me, they’re important. For example, what happens when you’re in the middle of a conversation at an industry event and you notice the most important potential contact on your radar has just walked into the room? Tempting as it may be to cut the current interaction short, it’s poor form — and it could come back to bite you later. As Lorine Pendleton, head of business development for the global law firm Dentons, reminds us, people remember how you treat them. Always do right by those you interact with, no matter who they are or how insignificant an interaction may seem at the time.
In business networking — as in tennis — what happens after you make contact is as important as the contact itself. After you meet someone new, follow up on any promise you’ve made to connect with them again — within 72 hours, according to at least one expert. Then keep following through by staying in touch. As with social networking, you don’t have to spend a ton of time on this, but you do have to spend time. Do it on a schedule if you must, but do it. And if you don’t? Worst case scenario, you’ll lose touch with the contacts you’ve so carefully cultivated and waste the time you’ve already invested.
Make no mistake about it: Networking is vital. It’s how most people get their jobs – including Tom Farley, president of the New York Stock Exchange, who says he owes every job he’s ever had to networking. And it’s how executives get the information, access to skills and power they need to put their businesses at an advantage. I think you’ll agree it’s well worth your time, and I hope the principles outlined here help you spend that time wisely.
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