Better questions will always provide more out of life than lazy questions.
That hit me between the eyes as I participated in a Zoom session with 140 leaders of professions, industries, associations and standards creators. The first half of the meeting danced around the question, What are we doing to keep our community engaged and, mostly, when can we gather in groups again? Then came the better question and we saw everyone snap back to attention and lean toward the camera on their computer.
The most senior, most respected CEO, silent until now, asked, “Isn’t this really about relationships? When we were not socially distancing, were we effective at networking? Is there something we can learn now and work on now that rings true whether you are in the same room or not with someone?”
What are we as leaders of professionals doing to help our members, our customers, our tribe see that networking is the skill that pays the bills? Stop thinking it’s about whether you call yourself an introvert or extrovert. Creditors don’t care about personality type. They charge the same price whether you are shy or bold.
Did you notice that every association for every profession says their stakeholders always rate networking as the #1 or #2 reason for gathering or engaging in other ways, such as committees, chapters, mentoring, and workshops? The other reason is professional development and we spend nearly all time and money on that area—way out of whack with networking.
If networking is that important, why are we not teaching it with the same intensity and purpose as the subject-matter area, such as engineering, nursing, law, project management and so on, to thousands more fields?
To answer the better question, it helps to examine the series of previous decisions that got us to this point. Who decided networking was only about sales and hiring? When did we realize that relationships with customers were more valuable to our organization than selling their name and email address to a stranger?
I’m not a networking teacher. I’m a journalist, creator of connections and lover of more than 600 professions and industries. My knowledge and practice around networking dramatically changed as a result of opportunities in running my own company the past 30 years. The more I saw it was about relationships and strategy, I became more deliberate with my approach to nurturing my network.
Come with me on a networking expedition and I’ll be glad to point out the landmarks, the scenery, and the people along the way who can open your mind and show you unlimited opportunities to change your networking notions and words, forever.
Earlier works and articles using the term networking tend to limit thinking to sales functions and getting what you want out of life. It seemed to emphasize getting a sale, getting a job, getting an introduction, and getting ahead. That view is about me, me, me and missed the point of why we need relationships, all of the time, with everyone’s life we touch, physically or at a distance, with masks, or remotely with technology.
The minute you remove the limitations of “sales only” and see networking as the main skill that pays the bills, your life transforms. The minute you cement in your mind networking as an essential skill and not a “soft” skill, people see you are more about their needs than your ego.
Another better question: If this is such an essential skill, how come nobody taught this to us in school, then in our job, then in our professional associations?
One answer is not until recent history–only 20 years, did thought leaders and business analysts show the impact of relationships over all other elements, such as products, prices, promotions on revenues and reputations.
Another answer is not until pandemic history, starting in 2020, did millions more understand that relationships, conversations, connecting and collaborating mattered more than everything else we once thought as more necessary.
What does it look like when we miss the opportunity to teach networking skills?
Lynne Waymon, networking expert for 30 years and co-author of Strategic Connections: The New Face of Networking in a Collaborative World, pointed out these landmarks of networking impact. It happened over coffee, virtually.
If you want to read books and articles on networking, you’ll find plenty. Before you spend any time running down that path, you might want this flashlight of illuminating insights to shine on some of the blind turns we found in earlier explorations.
I read constantly. These got it right and can help you, tremendously.
Life gets better when you heed articles which shift your networking focus to relationships and strategy, i.e., doing the right things for the right reasons, for all in the conversation.
Forbes, Feb. 23, 2018 – Forget Networking: Relationship Building Is The Best Career Shortcut.
Entrepreneur, August 27, 2018 – The New Networking: 8 Strategies for Building Real Relationships. Promises lasting connections that help grow your business in the modern age.
FastCompany, Nov. 8, 2018 – How to Maintain Your Relationships As You Grow Your Network. Emphasizes networking is not only about meeting people. It is also about setting up systems to sustain those connections.
And then what happened? We all got the opportunity to hit the pause button, stay at home many months, and see networking as relationship building.
Fortune, March 25, 2020 – 4 Ways to Keep Networking While Social Distancing
Forbes, April 1, 2020 – How to Network While Social Distancing. The key to successful networking is to get to know people, have genuine conversations, and provide value.”
Now is the time to work on networking skills and teach others. If the pandemic was baseball, we’d be in the 2nd inning. May 12, 2020, USA Today interviews Dr. Michael Osterholm, coronavirus epidemiologist.
Whether you think of yourself as a master at networking or feel like this is the first day of your networking awakening, the next steps work the same for all. Networking, when done well, is like walking. At the very beginning you may need a little help and for all other days and decades of your life, you don’t think about it that much. You just walk all the time and get to your next destination.
The same is true for networking. It’s something you practice every day and the main thing you notice is the result. Did you get somewhere or just walk in circles, by yourself? In every conversation and every word you released, were you curious about them and their story, their experience? Or were you trying to get your way, your needs, your ideas tended to first?
See how that works? Now let’s take a few practice swings with me, here and now. We’ll start with 3 easy, baby steps:
First, what connection do you and I have? Do you have a LinkedIn account and are we connected at the 1st Level? If not, go to your account and send an invitation to connect to me.
Second step, do you want to read all of the books on networking that I’ve read since 1999, or do you prefer to tap into my brain to get the good parts that apply to you? That’s called a conversation. Ask me to help you learn faster and I will.
Third step, is there someone specific you’d love to meet and wonder if they are in my network of people who know, like and trust me? That’s called an email or phone call—just ask me. If I don’t know that person directly, we can both find the person who does and one reason why meeting you is good for them.
Keep your eye on the results and not the process. Networking skills improvement is for you if you want to: