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Developing a Powerful and Caring Network
What do you do when you want to launch a new business, grow an existing one or make a giant leap into another career? You do what any good entrepreneur would do, you start building a network. This is a short guide to how you can start a new network or just grow the one you already have.
There are several ways to build your network. Let’s talk about two categories which are common for entrepreneurs. The first is building a network to grow within your current business. The second category is starting fresh in a new business or industry. Both of these categories share similarities and I’m sure in the right situation are entirely interchangeable. One of the greatest joys of being an entrepreneur is creating and maintaining your network. Some of the most successful and fulfilled people I know have a powerful network of family, friends, associates and contacts. It follows that the most successful businesses have the strongest networks. A good friend of my families always used to say proudly that in fifteen years of business he had only lost one client, “but that was our choice not theirs” he added. When asked how he managed to keep his clients for so long he told us that he really cared about their businesses and made sure he spoke to them often about how he could help them improve. He understood the principles of networking very well. “Share you time, knowledge and offer your help” he said, “and be compassionate towards your clients”.
Creating Momentum in an Existing Network
Become a master of your trade. Learning all there is to know about your industry or business may be impossible but most of us have the ability to master the basics and keep current on the most relevant stuff. This is important if you are going to try to create a reciprocal network of people to work with. You need to understand how your business works, who your market is and what the factors that influence success and failure are. What it doesn’t mean is that you become a know-it-all who can’t wait to interrupt others with your version of the day’s news. Becoming a master of your trade allows you to make better decisions about who needs to be part of your network and what knowledge you need to be able to include yourself in positive communication. Interesting people are often included in senior discussions, asked to deliver workshops and invited to speak at seminars.
This is not a difficult as you might think it is. Initially it will take some time to gather the necessary knowledge required to feel confident about speaking with others about your area of expertise. After essentially blundering into a position some years ago I found myself not knowing much about the industry I was working in. I realized that my good luck would run out soon if I didn’t demonstrate to the rest of the team that I actually knew what was going on in our segment of the market. For about 6 weeks I would go into the office about an hour early and read every newsletter, article and book I could find on the subject. Gathering this information soon paid off. After just two months with this company I was delivering information workshops to our partners, vendors, journalists and even the company’s board of directors. This put me in touch with hundreds of new people every month and my network grew from almost zero to a thousand in less than a year.
Share your knowledge actively. Giving of yourself will always bring positive results. Sharing your knowledge or wisdom is one of the greatest ways we can give others something good.
In one of my first jobs I was fortunate enough to have a boss who lived by the principle “if you want to succeed make sure you help everyone around you succeed too”. As I was still new to the industry she went out of her way to send me interesting articles or highlighted sections in books and magazines. I caught the bug and was soon forwarding great news pieces and dropping interesting articles on others desks. It was amazing how many good things happened from this simple way of sharing knowledge. In one particular case I started a magazine exchange with a very bright senior consultant working for big broadcast company that shared our office building. This constant exchange brought us closer and years later he accepted the position of CEO for a media company I had foundered.
The important part of idea sharing is making it relevant. Nobody wants to receive more junk mail or spam so be aware of the relevance of the knowledge you share has to the recipient. It might be really interesting for you but might not hit the same buttons for the other guy. Keep connecting on the basis of shared interest and in the interest of sharing knowledge.
Starting from Scratch
So what happens when you are so new to your industry that you don’t know anyone or anything? Maybe you have decided to take a giant leap into a new area to follow your heart. A friend of mine recently gave up the responsibilities of running a large advertising agency to start a new career as a psychologist. She had no experience or education in psychology so it would mean starting at the very bottom and working hard to get back to the top. Maybe you have also just started a new career or are statring your first career and are wondering how you can accelerate the building process.
Ask for help. This is not only a good way to make new friends but it’s the best way to increase your knowledge. The knowledge that you desire generally can be gathered from asking those who have it to share with you. This is generally a misunderstood concept and I often hear people’s disbelief as the idea that someone would openly share their knowledge with you. After all, isn’t intellectual capital the thing we prize the most? The truth is that most people love to talk about themselves. What’s even more exciting is that successful people are the ones that are most willing to give advice or share some interesting information.
My favorite method of asking for help is to write ‘advice letters’ to successful people. I start the letters by acknowledging their achievements and my interest in imitating their rise to the top. I ask for their advice on how to achieve the kind of success they have managed. Once I’ve received a positive response, which never fails to arrive, I sometimes give them a very short introduction to my business and ask if they know of anybody else that they think I should meet with that might help me further. This last step is really important if you are serious about developing a significant network. It creates momentum for your network by taking your connections to levels you might not be able to reach directly. Using this method it is quite possible to reach even the highest levels of our corporate and sociopolitical organizations. I have heard of a case of a young boy who used the ‘advice letter’ to reach Nelson Mandela and received a personal response.
Return the favor by offering your help or expertise. We all have something to give, some talent or skill that is useful to others. At the soonest opportunity offer your help to the person you receive advice or help from. Think about it as a kind of barter exchange were you present your gifts in exchange for the gifts you have just received. A friend of mine is a creative director who works from home and enjoys the luxury of going to yoga a couple of times a week. He arranged to do some graphic design and marketing work for the yoga studio in return for free classes. Whether your new contact chooses your services or not doesn’t really matter. It’s more important to make yourself available to your contact as gratitude for their help. It shows people that you aren’t just taking and are willing to give back.
My friend who started a new career as a psychologist volunteered to work on the telephone help lines for a support group. After receiving a short course in counseling she was able to really help people on the help lines and was given first hand experience in therapy work.
I recently changed career paths and found myself requiring the services of an executive coach. I interviewed several candidates and was about to commit to one particularly brilliant coach when an opportunity for an exchange came up. The coach needed some marketing advice and asked if I would be willing to trade coaching hours for marketing expertise. The prospect of getting free coaching for a few hours of my time was too good to pass up so I accepted immediately.
Introduce your contacts to each other. This is the yeast in the network cake. By introducing your contacts to one another they connect their networks and share information. This helps the network expand in quantum leaps which is something that can’t be achieved by one-on-one networking alone.
A word of caution though when introducing your contacts or associates; think carefully about why you are introducing them to each other. Make sure you are not just setting up meetings for the sake of making connections. Successful people are generally smart and busy so don’t waste their time by putting them in contact with each other without some clear reason for doing so. Also, don’t feel it necessary to chaperone the meetings. Once you have identified the commonality and made the introduction you should back off. Whether these people hit it off or not will be entirely up to them.
A few years ago I was dealing with two large clients who, once we had looked at their business strategies, appeared to have loads in common when we. I arranged a meeting between my clients but made the mistake of thinking I needed to be in the boardroom when they met. I honestly thought the meeting would go better if I hung out while they talked. The meeting went well but afterwards as we walked to the car park my client admitted to me that he felt uncomfortable having me in the room. He said he felt that he couldn’t speak openly with the other party because he kept on wondering if I had some other agenda by eavesdropping on the conversation.
The most important thing you can do to grow you network is the hardest. This is what makes relationships stick. It’s the glue that keeps people talking and sharing time and time again.
The lesson is you have to listen. If you can listen, really listen, you’ll be surprised how many people will want to connect with you again and again. When you ask people how they are, wait to hear what they answer and let them talk before you open your mouth to tell them your side of the story. In meetings listen to what people say and to what they don’t say. Try to develop your natural talents for listening and watching. Be aware of what people are asking you to do. If you listen to what they are really asking you for then you are more likely to be able to give it to them. That makes them happy and keeps the connection strong.