Business networking has long been an essential skill for business leaders, although many try to avoid it because they feel that it requires too much effort and fear putting themselves out there. However, creating lasting connections allows you to open new doors for your organization and employees, as well as yourself. Possessing a large network provides you with the knowledge and resources you need to solve problems quickly and obtain access to important resources. Some important tips to keep in mind while attempting to build a larger network include:
Dedicate at least a few hours each week to networking.
For most business leaders, networking does not happen organically. You need to work hard to develop and maintain professional relationships. The exact amount of time that you need to devote to networking depends on several factors, including how large of a network you already have and how much you wish to expand it. Virtually everyone should spend an hour or two each week reviewing relevant business news. A minimal commitment also means meeting up with people at least once a month and attending at least one industry conference a year, which will help to keep you fresh in the minds of your professional network. You can increase your commitment by writing and sharing relevant business articles and organizing regular networking events. You may also want to consider speaking at industry events, thereby achieving a more recognizable name.
Conduct research before meeting with connections.
When you go for interviews, you take the time to get to know the background of the individuals with whom you will be speaking, including their responsibilities and education. The same is true for networking. While you may be less concerned about making a good impression when meeting with your network contacts, you should think of it in an interview context and spend some time researching the people that you will be meeting and getting up to speed on their recent accomplishments. Knowing this information demonstrates that you are willing to invest in the relationship. After a meeting—even a casual lunch conversation—you should follow up with an email or some other sort of communication to recap the conversation and plan for the next point of contact.
Focus on the second date.
A great way to quickly build a strong network is to make a personal rule about getting a “second date” at any industry event. While meeting a bunch of new people may seem overwhelming at first, having a specific focus—such as making one new, high-quality connection—can make the experience less daunting. At an event, you can initiate simple conversation by asking others what brought them to the event. When you meet a person who seems to have shared interests, a “second date,” such as a meeting over coffee or lunch, can help to secure the relationship.
Avoid becoming overextended.
Some business leaders focus more on the size of their professional network than on the quality of it. Great networkers realize that there is a difference between an online and offline network. While you may have hundreds of people in your online network, you should focus on five to 10 people for your offline network. Attempting to develop and maintain close relationships with more than 10 people will ultimately mean that some individuals will begin to feel neglected and will never become the mentors and business leaders that you would like them to be. Ultimately, frequency and the quality of interaction is more important than the length of time spent together. For example, sending a quick update or great article to someone is an effective means of reaching out when people are especially busy. You should always respect the time you are given and have a clear agenda when meeting someone in person or even just speaking on the phone.
Contribute to the conversation.
Professional networks should be built on mutual respect. You should focus not only on what other people can do for you, but also on what you can do for other people. When at an industry event, delivering a great talk about an important issue can quickly secure dozens of new connections. Similarly, publishing great pieces or offering heartfelt advice can serve as the foundation of great new relationships. At the same time, networking is a two-way street, so you also need to yield the floor to other people to share their opinions; read and comment on the pieces published by the other professionals they know; and humbly accept the advice that other people may offer.
Think about personal objectives.
Individuals often have different goals when they are networking. Some people want to increase their industry connections to help grow their businesses, while other leaders may be looking for new mentors. Having an idea of what people want will help you to select the most relevant forums for making connections both online and in person. Even at industry conferences, there are typically a wide range of different networking events people can attend to make new connections, and each of these events could have a different focus. Thinking critically about personal expectations and what the people at these conferences are likely looking for can save you time and effort.