How to Love Networking
“Networking! My favorite!” said no one ever.
Networking gets a bad rap. When I hear the word I immediately think of fluorescent conference halls and uncomfortable shoes. But networking is really about building relationships — a concept that’s pretty innocuous, and even positive, especially for small-business owners who are always looking for opportunities to learn from others.
So how can we drop the stereotypes and learn to love networking? I asked Ryan Paugh, co-author of the new book “Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter” and co-founder and chief operating officer of The Community Company, for his tips.
Building relationships is important for any business, but when people hear the word ‘networking’ they cringe. Why do people traditionally hate networking?
When I think about "networking" I think about that person you meet who hands you their business card before you even have a chance to speak. Or who shakes your hand with a smile, but you can tell they're already looking over your shoulder toward the next person they need to meet and greet at ye olde conference or trade show. It's funny, but if you asked those same people if they enjoyed networking they'd probably tell you that they hate it too. They're just doing it because that's how somebody else told them it was done.
There's no one root cause to what killed networking, but it's on life support, nearly dead, and it's time to find a better way.
In your book you tell people to stop networking. What do people get wrong, and what should they do instead?
Stop thinking about it as networking and instead think of it as connecting — building relationships. That simple word substitution alone goes a long way toward finding a new frame of mind.
Now the next time you're at an event and have the opportunity to connect with another person, shut up and listen. Keep your business cards in your pocket, your elevator pitch behind your lips under lock and key, and set an intention to get to know the other person by asking great questions. You'll be amazed at how many opportunities to connect the dots and help the other person will come up if you simply listen to what they have to say.
What's your advice for someone who wants to LOVE networking, instead of dreading it?
Contrary to popular belief, becoming a great connector doesn't start with understanding other people. It starts with understanding yourself. Self-awareness is mission critical if you want to love the process of building relationships with others.
You need to know in what environments you thrive and, more importantly, in what environments you suck. For example, if you're an introvert (like me) crowded conferences don't work and you shouldn't be there. Or you need to create opportunity to curate people you want to meet at these events into smaller groups.
At The Community Company, we produce something that we call an Oasis at larger conferences that tend to be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. At these invite-only venues, we allow members of the communities we run to come together at a private lounge to re-energize and connect with a vetted community of their peers in a much-less-daunting setting. You don't need an events budget to employ a tactic like this. The next time you're attending a big event, put in the upfront work to determine who you want to meet, then reach out and schedule time to grab a coffee or beer outside of the conference mayhem. You'll create that same sort of Oasis effect that many of us are yearning for at overwhelming events.
Long story short, if you want to really enjoy this stuff, get to know yourself and engineer a way to make connecting work for you. Don't accept the status quo. Instead, break all of the rules and design a system for connecting that you enjoy and allows the people you're meeting to see your best self.
If you were starting a new business in an unfamiliar industry tomorrow, how would you work on building your professional network?
First and foremost, determine what venues are important to the people in your new industry. What conferences and trade shows do they attend? What forums do they use to connect online? Get engaged with these platforms.
From there, focus on giving back to the leaders and tastemakers in these groups. Every. Single. Day. We call this “habitual generosity” in our book. The best connectors know that by giving back to others unconditionally, you eventually get value back with dividends.
But be patient. There's no “8-Minute Abs” formula to building meaningful relationships. Some of the most important ones in my life took months, even years, to cultivate, but I wouldn't be where I am today without them.