Networking at its best makes you a better leader. Those executive and non-executive directors who are serious about developing their own skills, while also staying on the lookout for new ways to improve business performance, work hard at building a diverse array of contacts. Some people are simply bad at it while others over-think it, but those who do understand networking appreciate the competitive edge it provides.
Glen Moreno, Chairman of global education group Pearson, says: “In a corporate context, we often think of networks as a vital part of career progression and getting things done. But developing contacts outside our normal corporate and social circles – outside our normal ‘zone of comfort’ – can be important as well.
“A wide circle of contacts and acquaintances – in areas like public policy, academia, journalism, creative arts, the not-for-profit sector and religious organisations – can help sensitise us to the forces and issues which are shaping the world in which we operate. We ignore those forces at our peril.”
This is about broadening knowledge by developing relationships in the business community, as opposed to simply being transactional. Crawford Gillies, Non-executive Director at insurer Standard Life, says: “I abhor ‘networking’. So often it is no more than a shallow exchange of business cards.
“However, a network of individuals with whom you have a relationship based on trust, experience and mutual respect can be an invaluable source of advice, introductions and references throughout your career.”
Lord Mervyn Davies, partner and Vice Chairman of private equity firm Corsair Capital, comments: “As a leader, you have to produce results and you also have to develop and care for people, but don’t forget that you must never stop learning yourself. Networking is very important as you never know what you might learn from others – you also never know how that network might help you in the future. In short, networking really matters.”
Those that excel at making connections realise it takes time and effort and that they too may be called upon for advice, guidance and insight. Ian Durant, Chairman of Capital & Counties Properties, comments: “What you learn from observing those who are clearly good at [networking] is the obvious dedication that success demands. You can’t just network with the people you like, although you do need to establish a personal rapport with those in your network if you can, and it requires hard work and commitment…
“Typically, people’s networks are quite inward looking, but by reaching out to former colleagues, bosses and colleagues of colleagues, you may find particular benefits later on… the value in a real, deep and diverse network of individuals is much underestimated.”
Anthony Fry, Chairman of Dairy Crest Group, comments: “Every single meeting and interaction is one in which you can learn something which you didn’t know; it could be a fact, it could be an experience, it could be an idea. You are never too experienced to be able to enhance one’s own effectiveness by meeting new people as well as existing relationships.”
Keep an open mind
A strong relationship-based network makes a positive impact on your ability to lead. Helen Grace, Vice President, Global Airport Sales at American Express, says: “Networking helps me make better and faster decisions because I get more context or specific information [from speaking to contacts]. Gathering information, advice, counsel and experience are always good to have, to make a better decision.”
Sir Brian Bender, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of the London Metal Exchange, says: “[Networking] enables you to, for example, engage with people who’ve faced similar challenges, or who can help you see things in a new and different light, or who can simply add a fresh dimension to your thinking.”
There are different approaches and styles and while it should be thought through, it’s important for this to be fun as well. Andy McFarlane, Head of Marketing at telecoms company, Vodafone, comments: “My usual mode of operation is to reach out to a fair number of people… find out what’s hard and challenging for them, and see if I can help them without even trying to get a favour returned.”
Gary Kildare, Vice President of HR for the Americas, Europe & Asia Pacific regions at IBM, says: “It’s not about having one thousand contacts or collecting business cards and contacts like badges, it’s about being considered, economical and selective about creating and maintaining an active network.”
It can and does go horribly wrong when individuals think only in terms of ‘what’s in it for me?’ or ‘how can I win business?’. Rob Atkinson, Chief Executive of Adshel, the Australian subsidiary of outdoor advertising company Clear Channel, says that he tries “to keep an open mind and network as broadly as possible” so he’s not just within his own peer group.
Nicola Mumford, Board Advisor at law firm Wragge & Co, comments: “Some people are quite good actors but it’s always going to be more of a strain not to be yourself… If you don’t get on with someone you could spend an awful long time trying to impress them and you wouldn’t get very far. It’s as basic as that.”
Above all else, it’s important to be authentic when networking. Andy says: “I don’t view it as a task or an activity but as good behaviour… if I treat [my contacts] with respect, they will treat me with respect.”