Leaders that spend some of their valuable time on networking never look back. They’re willing to meet a mix of people, are keen to share their own experiences while also taking advice that could inform their own thinking on how to tackle business dilemmas. Fundamentally, they understand that a diverse network, where there is mutual respect, can only be a good thing.
Sir Ian Gibson, Chairman of supermarket chain Morrisons, says: “Networking is useful because it opens people’s minds and stops them becoming too internalised. It’s also good for appreciating what you’ve got, because every company [and]… management team will have challenges and issues to overcome and, seeing the way it works for others, provides an external reference which can be useful to validate ideas and ways of working.”
It forms an important part of leadership development for directors who are curious, always on the lookout for fresh insights. “The real purpose of networking has become clearer in recent years,” says Dominic Emery, Vice President of Long-Term Planning for BP. “Certainly my experience of it, in terms of understanding how other companies do strategy, which is primarily what I’m involved in, I’ve found extremely useful… [and] I’ve learnt an enormous amount from real practitioners about what works and what doesn’t.”
Paul Withers, Senior Independent Director at engineering concern Keller Group, comments: “What it does is give you other people’s perspectives. So, like I did, if you spend a lot of time in one company, there’s a danger that you get a particular perspective on how things are, how things might be and how things should be.
“But if you see different companies run in different ways, in different styles and you meet a mix of people who have their own particular approaches, you’re more flexible in terms of how you see possible solutions or ways through situations and that is good to have.”
Code of Conduct
If you’re to extract the full benefits from networking, there’s some basic etiquette to follow. Jeremy Williams, Chairman of design agency Assembly Studios, says: “For me, people selling their services at a networking event, particularly at the outset or in an insistent way, is a big mistake. My approach to networking is to look for opportunities to help others, be that by making connections, further introductions or recommendations.
“If you focus on the needs of other people rather than yourself, then you will add great value for them at networking events. I feel this approach is much more likely to develop into mutually beneficial, two-way relationships in the future.”
Neil Wilson, CEO of recruitment concern Stanton House, agrees: “When you’re networking, you have to go into it with a feeling of trying to help people, whichever way that might be, because then it could be reciprocal. But if you just go in and think: ‘What can I get from this personally?’ and don’t give anything back, that’s when I think it can go wrong. It’s a case of striking the right balance.”
A transactional attitude will be damaging, both for the person trying to sell and the organisation they represent. Liz Bingham, UK&I Managing Partner for Talent at professional services firm EY, says: “You can’t expect an immediate outcome, like another meeting, a piece of work, a job opportunity, whatever it may be. The problem with that approach is that the whole thing becomes more tactical than relational.”
According to Liz, it’s a misunderstood skill. “One of the challenges is that people view networking as standing around with a glass of something fizzy in your hand chatting, whereas the true value really does need to be better understood,” she says.
Quality, rather than quantity, is frequently cited as vital when building a network. Mike Greene, Chairman of online education company Bolt Learning, says: “I would rather meet one person a year who was hugely beneficial than a thousand of no value.”
In its purest form, knowledge, learning and diversity of thinking are what high-value networking can provide. “It works in a rather diffuse way,” explains Dominic. “You’re never quite sure what you can potentially offer until you get into the conversation. So you may have a superficial view that you’ll be able to exchange ideas about how strategy gets created in your company, but until you get to the conversation it’s not obvious where the giving and taking will be.
“So, I think if you go in there with some sense of what the purpose of the conversation is and then allow it to evolve, often it will result in a lot of common ground emerging very quickly.”
Not everyone is a networking natural but that shouldn’t be an excuse to shy away from it. With a little planning and effort, the benefits, both personal and professional, will soon become apparent.
I hope to see you soon.