Networking. Or Notworking. My post for EG. Not for you seasoned marketeers, obv.

PrintThe old joke? There’s one letter difference between networking and notworking.

There will always be people who are sceptical about the importance of networking.  You will generally find that they are the people who have a very small network. And even experienced professionals will often deride marketing events which they’ve never been to or which don’t suit the way that they network. But all successful professionals have a large and fluid network and it doesn’t happen by accident.

And let’s not confuse networking and marketing.  They are close relatives but they are not identical twins.  Marketing is about selling, and winning new business.  Networking is also about doing that, but in a different way – it is about meeting people who might be useful to you and your business either directly or indirectly, through referrals and for mutual benefit.

And at this time of the year, with a plethora of client drinks/parties/Christmas parties, there is more opportunity than at any other time of the year to meet new people.

And yes, I’m sorry to say, it does sometimes mean going into a room full of strangers talking to each other and having to actually talk to them. For people starting out, that can be fairly terrifying.  And often, to ease the pain, there are free drinks.  And often, people drink too many of them, especially at this time of year. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

And do be wary of getting completely bladdered at client events.  You might be the life and soul and indeed you might be very entertaining in your Santa hat, but you won’t necessarily be taken seriously thereafter.  And don’t put it on Facebook.

And what about conferences?  Are they worthwhile or are they just an excuse for a “jolly”? I go to MIPIM every year. I’m beyond bored with the amount of times that I’ve been told that I don’t need to go to the south of France to meet people that I could meet at home.  This is usually said to me by people who have never been.

And if I had heeded those words, and stayed at home, I would never have met a rather colourful property developer at 5am, in the bar of the Martinez, whose first words to me were “I  f******g hate my bank’s lawyers.

I happened to act for the bank whose lawyers he hated. Following that meeting at  MIPIM he told the bank to change lawyers from the hated firm to my own.  He then proceeded to borrow from a number of banks and instructed each one to put my firm on his panel.  That meeting wouldn’t have happened in London.

And the message from that little story is that successful networking sometimes happens when you are not expecting it and when it is unplanned, but unless you are out there and actually making some effort, it will not happen at all.

And it’s about making an effort.  You have to accept that you are responsible for your own future, however dull that may sound.  No-one is going to hand it to you on a plate.  The sooner you get that, the better.

So how do you do it?  Do you really have to stand in that room and work it?  Is that the only way?

I work with people who can work a room like no one else and it is something to behold, but it’s a skill and my belief is that if you don’t have it, then don’t concentrate on that particular aspect of networking, because it will only be excruciating to you and if you don’t manage to make connections with those strangers, you might feel like a failure.  And it’s all about the fear of rejection isn’t it – we’ve all been there, trying  to enter a group who are merrily chatting away and then and stand there, hovering, whilst no one speaks to you and no-one makes eye contact. Buttock-clenching.

It does get easier, the more you do it, but you do need a bit of a rhinoceros hide and not everyone has one.  And you may think that it’s a good idea to go with one of your colleagues to one of these events, but that just means you will hang around the edges, talk to each other and drink too much. Or leave after 5 minutes and go to the pub or go your Christmas shopping.  Yes, I mean you.

And there are practical strategies for dealing with how to work a room and I’ve read them and they can be helpful. Given that it is unlikely that you will get away without having to go to a few of these events on a regular basis, you might as well work out the best way for you to deal with them.

But if that type of event scares the living daylights out of you, then don’t do it. Or at least not a lot of it.

And the truth is, you are probably networking all the time, without even realising it.  Every time you go out after a deal for a drink, with your opposite number – that’s networking .

And never mind real life, if the room full of strangers scenario brings you out in a cold sweat, you can create a virtual network, online.  Unless you are living on another planet, you will have noticed that LinkedIn is becoming more important – it’s the grown-up big brother of Facebook. Likewise Twitter. Don’t ignore it. Twitter is a great way of finding other people who share common interests.

People are very generous online, with both their time and the sharing of information. It cuts through the normal stratifications of professional life. I’ve had many an interesting conversation with law students and juniors wanting to understand more about a career in the law – they would never have been able to have that conversation with me by phoning up my firm, but through Twitter, if they have something to say, they can make contact in a different way.

And I’ve recruited 2 lawyers and successfully introduced a transaction to an intermediary through Twitter, so it’s actually made and saved money in real life.

And you need to spend time on your social media profile, if you choose to have one. It’s not something that you can really dip in and out of. What you are really doing is creating your own personal brand and identity. That may make you cringe, but if you’re going to network effectively you have to do it.

And  networking is not about forcing yourself into social situations with the off-chance of meeting somebody, it is about planning what you want to achieve and working out how best to get it. Get involved with industry associations joining relevant LinkedIn groups, writing articles for trade papers and magazines to raise your profile.  But don’t go to events not relevant to your industry.   Unless the canapés are brilliant.

And don’t expect instant results. It takes a while to work out which of your new relationships are going to be beneficial. It often takes years for contacts to come good. Some never do. That’s business.

And if you do go to a function, be it a networking one, or a client dinner, or a wine tasting or just a few beers, make sure that if you meet anyone  interesting, you get their card. And remember it’s quality not quantity. It’s not a card-collecting competition.

And having got the magic card, have a system for dealing with it. The most basic thing that you can do is make sure that you remember who gave you the business card – in my ideal world, I write something on the back of each business card to remind me about the person I met and what they might be interested in. Try not to lose the card on the tube home.

And the next morning, whilst soaking up your hangover with a bacon sarnie, , put that new contact  in your Outlook, with a background note and have a diary reminder to follow them up on a regular basis. If you don’t do a follow-up e-mail the next day, you probably never will and if you do it a week later, the person you met will have already forgotten about you.

We’ve all been to business events and not followed up. I’m as guilty as the next person. There is no excuse.

And you know with networking, it’s really not “one size fits all.” You really have to work out what it is you want to achieve through your networking before you work out your networking strategy. So many people have no goal whatsoever in networking; they just have a vague desire to ” improve their business” or “meet new people”. But most of us are time-poor and don’t have the luxury of hours to waste on people and events that are not useful for us. So be focused.  Think about why you’re there (if not just for the drinks) and don’t eat all the pies.

Tips

  • Don’t be scared about the roomful of strangers. If you don’t meet anyone it doesn’t matter
  • Do remember to take your business cards and a pen that works –you’d be surprised at how many people fall at that first hurdle
  • Don’t lose all self-control when faced with free drinks. Don’t be the person who they talk about the next day
  • Do follow up the very next day – or don’t bother.
  • Don’t fake it. If you don’t gel with someone, best to move on.
  • And – my pet hate -don’t look over your shoulder to see who else has come into the room. Sorry I’m boring you.
  • Do take your work-self  seriously. If you don’t, no-one will.