The definition of 'networking': Interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.
We are constantly told to connect, collaborate, network and engage with others.
But I have a confession to make: networking doesn't excite me. I'm an introvert, an over-thinker and I'm time-poor - so the idea of walking into a room full of people I don't know and wading through small talk before I can get to the substance of a person and their purpose, well, it does my head in.
I've got quite good at connecting in online business groups and I've even shared personal stuff with colleagues on those platforms that I wouldn't share with some real-life work colleagues, but I know my business can't thrive and grow just by focusing on my online business groups.
So at the start of April I decided to set myself a big, hairy audacious goal that would push the edges of my networking 'envelope' and force me to network in face-to-face situations. I often tell my clients that the way to build a soft skill is repetition, repetition, repetition, so I figured that doing networking on a manic level (well, manic for an introvert) would help me build new muscles and take the fear out of it.
I decided to ensure that over April I would actively network, with the aim of having meaningful, real conversations with 100 people.
"If you're not networking, you're not working" Denis Waitley
So I signed up for a Women's Business Conference, asked to visit some Venus Network meetings across Christchurch, visited some regional business groups, enrolled for a training course on Marketing and cold-called a number of people I wanted to meet and collaborate with. Then I exhaled.
It was nerve-racking at the first networking group visit - I found myself looking for excuses to avoid going, I felt anxious, unsure of myself and second-guessed how I would deliver my 'elevator pitch'. And the first group I visited was stand-offish, clicky and not very welcoming. Gulp. It felt like these people had already established their networks and didn't see the need to expand them - I felt ignored and passed-by, like the homeless person they just have to step over to get to their meeting. I agonised over whether to quit my goal then and there.
"Overthinking is just a painful reminder that you care way too much, even when you shouldn't."
But I knew I had to persist - in my business, where I provide career coaching for students and young adults, the majority of my business is referrals, mostly through one mother passing my name to another mother - so I knew the best way to gain a mother's trust is to get in front of them, and show them that they can rely on me and my advice for their precious child's future.
"The richest people in the world look for and build networks. Everyone else looks for a job." Robert Kiyosaki
And it got better - I found other groups were more welcoming, or one person would see I was new and would make the effort to introduce me (thank you, fairy god mothers!) or I would get to events early and make the first step to introduce myself as others arrived. Making sure I knew how to get to the venue and planning my journey time also reduced the chance that my nerves would not build to some unmanageable crescendo (i.e. melt-down/anxiety attack territory) by the time I arrived.
I met some fascinating people that are doing great work and conveying a real passion for their 'why' - this was inspiring and the feedback, positive affirmations and genuine enthusiasm others shared for my business helped me reconfirm that I need to keep going. It was an unexpected benefit to my networking frenzy but one I was very grateful for.
So what did I learn from this task?
I love to observe and reflect and analyse and evaluate and, well, you get it, sift all this information into conclusions (there's that overthinking rearing its head again). And what I learned surprised me.
1. A business card will NEVER go out of fashion - despite the smartphone and cameras and apps, there's nothing like holding and massaging a business card in your fingers as you chat to your new BFF. I recently got new ones that are thick, embossed and have my photo on them - I got so many compliments about the look and feel that I feel sure it helped me be remembered.
2. People can TELL if you are passionate about your business - I met a woman who had built an enormously successful business around merino products and was clearly a market leader. But now she had stepped back from the business to own the licences, and when she spoke, it was from a transactional point of view - volumes, market share, profit etc. She didn't mention her 'why' and didn't share her back story, so even though her products are probably great, I am unlikely to explore them further or mention them to anyone. Because the passion didn't seem to be there.
3. People don't buy your products, they buy your 'WHY' - the people I remember the most from all those networking events are the ones that talked about their purpose, their driver, their passion projects. Sure your magazine looks interesting and you want to sell lots of them, but when you told me about the need to tell the stories of talented people doing great things because traditional news organisations didn't 'get' their value, well then you had me. So now I don't tell people I do career coaching for students; I tell them about my dream of having every student leave high school with a clear idea of their place in the world of work - because that's MY 'why'.
4. It's the small acts of kindness that you remember - it's easy to think that everyone's got their sh*t together and has confidence in spades, but I think that only applies to a small (lucky?) portion of society. The rest of us are wound up tight, analysing ourselves to pieces and second guessing every action, thought, idea, word and clothing choice. So when you see someone new appear at your event or you sense someone is floundering, reach out. I won't forget those few people that did that for me while others just stood there.
5. Your networking skills DO improve with repetition - by the end of my goal month, I felt much less worried about meeting new people. Sure I wasn't nerves-free but I booked meetings with fewer second thoughts and I focused on the good that could come from it, more so than the things that could go wrong. I found strategies that worked for me - arriving early, making contact with a key person a few days earlier, writing a thank you afterwards and offering some information/contact/support in return for their welcoming of me. I learned to tell my story first (not too much of it, though - part of being an introvert is that I am reserved and private - it takes me a LONG time to trust someone, let alone share my innermost thoughts) and this definitely helped me in building connections.
Your network IS your net worth.
I met my goal! 104 genuine, interesting connections where I heard their story, exchanged business cards, followed up and reflected upon. Traffic to my website has doubled and my bookings for May (usually a quiet month as students are engrossed in NCEA internals) are triple what they were for this time last year, so that's been a great but unexpected result. And now I have built this muscle up - it's still small and vulnerable but I think I can 'see' it now - I need to keep networking as a regular, normal, non-threatening part of my business. If I can do it, you can too.
"Networking is more about farming than it is about hunting - it's about cultivating relationships." Ivan Misner
So tell me, what's the obstacle that YOU need to get over in order to progress your career or business? Do you have any networking tips to share that I could pass on to my student clients who may be struggling to network in finding a job? I would love to hear them.
Tracey is the founder and CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer) at Career Matters, a business working with students and young adults across New Zealand. Having made mistakes in her own career search and career path, she wants to provide better support and practical tools to the next generation, as they head out into an exciting world or work. Using contemporary online career search tools, Tracey helps students identify their 'why' in work and she makes no apologies for challenging parents or outdated paradigms around choosing a career.
You can reach Tracey at email@example.com - she loves to talk about careers and the lessons that others have learned along the way.