BY G. A. FINCH
I hate the term “networking”. It is a hackneyed phrase and suggests a mercenary and self-promoting activity. Most people feel networking means going to events, making small talk, collecting business cards, and promising to follow-up. Other people would include informational interviews and requests for lunch or coffee as “networking.” Although there is a certain randomness and hit or miss, scattershot quality in these approaches, it can be more effective and serene than that.
Purposeful and Natural
What some people call networking, I call flying your flag and meeting people. Flying your flag is seeing and being seen to let people know you exist or remind them of your presence. It is like the old famous philosophical question in solipsism: If the tree falls in the forest and makes a crashing sound and no one is around to hear it crash, does the tree make a sound? Go ponder that. Similarly, if you do not get out and about and no one sees you, how do they really know you exist? In other words, out of sight, out of mind. A certain portion of your going out and about for business reasons should be limited, strategic, and purposeful. The rest should be just a part of your daily life.
Not only do you want to meet new people, but you want to maintain connections with people who you already know or have met. I was recently at an event where four people from the same office came together, talked together, and left together. What was that all about? I know they had families and other commitments, so why did they waste their precious time talking to each other and not promoting their organizations or making connections for themselves? It would have been more useful for them to have skipped the event and gone about their personal activities.
Sometimes opportunity presents itself because you happen to be at the right place at the right time. I know a guy that when he sees me will tell people that I am responsible for his job because I had invited him as a guest to an event at which he connected with a person who got him his job and I do not even remember that particular event. However, to his point, I, too, have, on occasion, benefited serendipitously from attending an event – e.g., like my college reunion, during which a classmate, upon learning of an area of my professional expertise and writing experience, placed me on an editorial board of an industry magazine. Another time, as a favor, I was teaching a public speaking workshop, and an observer, unbeknownst to me, quietly recommended me as an attorney to a CEO who then called me out of the blue to represent him in his employment contract. You never know from where opportunity will come.
Some forums are better than others. Some forums are not obvious business or professional development opportunities, but abound in potential. You can develop solid relationships from your kids’ school and extracurricular events and neighborhood related activities like block and holiday parties.
An executive’s going to an officially described “networking” event, I believe, is a waste of time and diminishes the executive’s brand. It smacks of being a used car salesman trying to make a sale (no offense to used car salesmen).
Now we all know of certain trade or business organizations whose major benefit is meeting people to possibly do business, but they are smart enough not to use the term “networking” – people know that everyone present is there to represent or promote his or her company, firm or business and they do so unabashedly but graciously.
Divide Your Efforts
Through trial and error, you can discern which groups, associations, or clubs seem to offer the greatest yield in terms of business, professional or personal opportunities and information. As you have only so many hours in a day and numerous personal and work commitments, you should narrow your focus to three to four organizations that you enjoy and that prove to be productive. As for the remainder of your efforts, they should be a natural part of your social sphere like church, school, social clubs, and kids’ activities. They should be natural and effortless by simply participating, being friendly, being helpful and letting people know what you can do, only if you are asked.
Love Thy Neighbor
Finally, be open and willing to help people when asked with no expectation of any benefit to you. Without being preachy, this is kind of a variant of the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The best way to love your neighbor is to help him. Even when it is inconvenient and time-consuming, it is always good for your soul to give and benefit another. Your “get” will take care of itself from some other, unexpected source, even if it just feeling great in helping another. Having said that, you do not want to indulge a repeat favor taker (user) who never offers to help anyone else – not a good use of your time, resources, energy and emotions. That was my long way of saying that networking should be more about being helpful to others than about seeking to help oneself. Capiche?