Networking shouldn’t be an uncomfortable chore. There’s a way to make connections more naturally and feel good about doing it.
There is an old adage, “It’s not just what you know, it’s who you know.”
Even in the age of technology, those words have never been more true. This is also the age of connectivity, after all.
As an entrepreneur, your network is your most precious resource. Networks open up new opportunities and solutions. Your first customers, promoters (who generate referral business), and startup staff will come from your network. Of course, your network will also be your moral and emotional support—perhaps the most necessary resource of all.
Networking is all about quality, not quantity. Still, if you aren’t investing in your network, then you’re probably handcuffing your business’s ability to grow—and you might just be dooming it to failure. But let’s face it, talking to strangers can be hard, intimidating, and even uncomfortable, especially when you have different agendas.
So how do you cultivate a network that will help your business thrive?
What’s the “secret” to making people like and trust you?
There isn’t one secret to networking, but here are three things you can do to make connections more naturally, build strong working relationships, and turn this essential business skill into a pursuit you genuinely enjoy:
1. Become a listener
You want to turn people off? Talk about yourself.
You want to connect with people? Find out what inspires them.
In his classic business book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie outlines a list of six habits for connecting with people. I’d strongly encourage you to read the book yourself, but some of his best advice (at least four of the six points) can be summed up in these simple words: don’t talk about yourself, listen.
That doesn’t mean sitting silently while the other person drones on and on. Listening is an active process, and your “job” as a listener is to learn what people are passionate about. Notice when people seem excited and ask them questions about it. Make mental notes of their answers and follow up with them on the subject later. People know you care when you ask questions (and more questions) and actually remember what they said.
The good news is, this is what makes the process enjoyable! It is an amazing thing when people trust you enough to let you into their story, their minds, and their hearts.
2. Pay it forward
Networking is tricky for some people because they see it as “fake.” We’ve all been to an uncomfortable networking event to hand out a few business cards. Pretending to be friendly or helpful, only because you want something in return? Not cool.
But building relationships in a professional context should not be fake or selfish. At the end of the day, networking is all about figuring out how people can help each other. People will naturally reveal what they need help with if you are an engaged listener. If you’re not able to help them yourself, you can connect them with someone who can.
A perfect example of the pay-it-forward networking approach is Elmer Letterman. Every week, Elmer would invite three people to lunch together—not to sell his own product, but because he thought they should meet and help each other. That approach of being conscientious and spreading goodwill made him a sales rockstar.
There are other ways to reframe networking as a way of serving others. Consider mentoring a few people at the bottom of the food chain or offering what knowledge you have to your connections for free. You’d be surprised at the people you meet simply by being helpful.
3. Schedule time to reconnect with old contacts every week
I schedule an hour or two each week to spin the ole rolodex and check in with people (clients, service providers, old colleagues) just to see how their lives are going. It’s been hugely beneficial to my business, but more than that, it’s very satisfying personally. These are my people and I’m genuinely interested in their wellbeing.
You shouldn’t have an agenda for these calls (or emails, texts, etc.). Think of it as a practice of small acts of caring. At the same time, it’s okay to acknowledge in the back of your mind that good things for your business are going to come from this practice, because they always do.
If an hour a week sounds like a tall order, at the very least, reconnect with one far-flung person in your life. You’ll find that keeping in touch with people at the edge of your map opens up a whole new set of connections and opportunities.
Getting to know people’s passions… Looking for ways that they can help each other… Reconnecting and checking in with the people in your life… There’s a theme to these suggestions, have you figured it out?
Networking is not about “networking.” The more you can scrap that word from your vocabulary, the better. What your goal should be—in business as in life—is to build relationships. You don’t need to think about them in terms of who can help you and your business, because everyone has something to offer.
Networking is a task, a chore. But building relationships is the cornerstone of a meaningful life. If you approach people with genuine interest, offer them what help you can, and put in a little effort to stay in touch, you’ll have a life and a business that are rich with relationships.
Did you find the advice in this article helpful? What’s your biggest hang-up around networking? I’d love to hear from you and connect in the comments below.