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Network While You Work

Continuing the Saying What You Mean focus on how to grow as a leader by incorporating influence-building strategies into your work-style, this week, we look at the world of social networks.

Influential leaders spend time in the center of and making connections between personal and business networks. For most highly influential people, networking is a natural part of life.

However, if you’re like me, and came to the party late, networking tends to feel more like a necessary evil than an networkinginstinctive way of life. Apparently this is a common sentiment. According to Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter, in their Harvard Business Review article, How Leaders Create and Use Networks,”…we’ve found that networking—creating a fabric of personal contacts who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources, and information—is simultaneously one of the most self-evident and one of the most dreaded developmental challenges that aspiring leaders must address.”

Before we take the leap into this brave new world, or in the case of strong networkers, before encouraging those we’re mentoring to take the plunge, let’s make sure we know it’s worth it. Then, we can review some simple strategies for getting started.

The biggest hang-up I had with networking is that it seemed to be at worst a self-serving means for getting resources or referrals from others and at best a shallow exchange of favors.

From the outside looking in, networking appeared to be a lot of one hand washing the other with intermittent bouts of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Even the Ibarra/Hunter quote above speaks to a group of contacts providing to the leader. It doesn’t mention anything about what the leader is giving back. However, my personal experiences on the networking learning curve, watching master networkers in action, and hours of reading up on the subject, have all cleared up this initial misconception about networking.

While it is true that the availability of networks from which to obtain information and support is vital to effective leadership that is only a small piece of the picture. The process of “creating a fabric of personal contacts,” requires leaders to earn peoples’ trust by establishing credibility, demonstrating integrity, developing a reputation for adding value, and learning to trust others. These results necessitate far more doing and giving than taking. For example:

  • Using expert time management and organizational skills to plan and run a successful local conference establishes credibility with and adds value to a project team far better than simply handing around a business card that reads “Senior Project Manager.”
  • Spending time meeting new people and forming long-term relationships with them provides a veritable work-out room for toning core leadership “muscles” such as interpersonal and communication skills.
  • Seeking out network contacts for counsel, ideas, and even a little elbow grease signals high levels of trust in those individuals. When trust is given, trust is earned.

An investment in networking returns technical, political, and personal guidance and insight, opens doors to new opportunities, and fortifies your leadership position with coalitions that ultimately make it easier to get results and facilitate decision-making.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his Stanford Graduate School of Business Note on Social Networks and Network Structure, states it best, “People intuitively know that networks matter—that where someone is located in the social space and who that individual is connected to can affect that person’s power and influence and even his or her career trajectory.”

Even after I understood that networking is a key ingredient for enhancing influence, I was still hesitant to get started. My reluctance to leave my comfort zone kept me from making the time to network. See, I’m a cave dweller. I believe the trendy parlance is “cloud commuter.” I can and do spend hours in my office working on client projects, reading, and coming up with brilliant blog topics. When I figured out how to link Twitter and Facebook, I thought I’d found cave-dweller networking nirvana! I could meet people from around the world and never have to don a business suit again. Then, I noticed that the people who were actually growing their business through social media were meeting their online networks offline and in person. Holy Tweetup Batman, it’s time to leave the cave!

For influence-builders who need to start networking and networkers who could you some fresh ideas, the strategies that have worked best for me are:

  1. Start Local
  2. Join groups where you can make a significant contribution
  3. Get to know people outside of your “inner circle”

Here are a few practical ideas:

  • Get involved with groups that are geographically convenient. The less time you have to travel to attend a meeting, the more likely you’ll be to show up consistently.
  • Use lunch hours, coffee breaks, and time standing outside conference rooms waiting for the other meeting to finish, to get to know people outside of your immediate department or functional area.
  • Join or bring together people with similar interests who might not otherwise work together. Philanthropic initiatives offer outstanding opportunities to lend a hand to a cause and develop long-term friendships with a variety of people from all areas of an organization or community.
  • Join a Chamber of Commerce and/or professional organization. Be sure to attend all meetings.  It’s difficult to establish trust and build long-term relationships with people you see infrequently. Become actively involved. You’ll build stronger relationships working side by side with people than just sitting next to them at an after hours mixer.
  • Participate in organizations or events that are meaningful to your customers and where you can add value. For example, if you sell educational software, volunteer your time in the school district literacy program. The students aren’t your buyers, but they’re your end-users. In the process of teaching them, you’ll learn more than you can imagine.
  • Take on only what you can do well. You want to establish your credibility by doing what you say you are going to do. For example, if you’re swamped with work and family life, forego being on the board of your professional organization. Instead, volunteer to participate in or run a committee or a single event.
  • When possible, opt for activities you can do with your kids and spouse (local running or bike races, community clean up committees/events, filling back-packs for underprivileged children, etc.). This way, networking provides quality family time rather than taking you away from the ones you love.

What other suggestions do you have for making networking a routine practice?

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Filed under Business, How To, Influence, Leadership, Networking, Trust