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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Real networking is real generosity

Recently, I've read several posts about networking including Ford Harding's useful post asking how big you think your network should be, and Mel Lester's observations about the value of lasting relationships in his most recent blog entry. You may also find some real value in reviewing Bob Littel's Netweaving site.

Since I am among the most socially awkward people in the world, networking, at least in the conventional sense, is not an easy thing for me. The way I solved the problem is to offer to contribute my talents and skills in the business communities most relevant to the business -- in this case, writing and advertising. Using the Netweaving concept, there is only one rule: The networking initiative is 100 per cent focused on the other person's interests -- not our own business needs and objectives. In other words, it is all about generosity, not taking.

In case you are wondering if this is an expensive and slow way to do business, especially in hard times, you are partly right. Great networking can be slow. But it shouldn't be expensive. Your 'give' is your insight, connections, time, and (sometimes) free services -- it isn't cash. If you want fast results, try canvassing, telemarketing or (perhaps less painfully) offering supplementary services to existing clients.

The last thing anyone (including you) want is to have some sales person pounce on you at a so-called networking event, making small talk, collecting and handing out business cards, and posing the blunt question about whether you need some product or service. The reverse also applies. Who really cares about you -- and how likely are potential clients to be interested in what you have to offer when you make perfunctory small talk, and just ditch people who can't help you?

With the reverse philosophy, networking become fun because your entire effort and exercise is focused on helping others achieve their objectives.

Almost inevitably, of course, the principal of reciprocation takes hold and the people you help offer to help you in return. Here the real 'win' occurs when you honestly don't need anything in return -- your polite decline (while doing still more good for the other person) really cements the relationship. Then, when a situation arises in the future where you have a valid reason to call on your contact, you'll be regarded with overwhelming courtesy and respect. Of course you don't abuse this -- but you enjoy the fruits of your labour, because the networking 'give' is so genuine that it doesn't feel like you are putting any effort into the process. The other people simply want to do business with you because you've demonstrated your competence and respect for their needs.

Where is the best place to network? I will answer it this way -- you should be in an environment where current and potential clients hang out, and your contribution to that group should be where you have strengths, talents, and ability to contribute wholeheartedly and with real commitment. In my case, some of my strongest networks are through the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) and the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association. In both cases, my contribution is writing and contributing to the association newsletter (in Ottawa, we have produced the internal association newsletter for 18 years). Since I'm a much better writer than socializer, this form of networking is relatively easy for me to do, and the research and writing of relevant articles allows me to call on association members at all levels, to give them useful and positive publicity. Not surprisingly, they almost always return my calls.

The really good thing about relevant associations is they have various committees suited to a diversity of interests. If you like social activities you can be on the social committee; if you are a political activist, you can participate on the action and policy groups. If a committee or activity doesn't exist, you can almost always suggest something. Don't just volunteer for 'anything' -- you don't want to be assigned to a 'warm body' task; you should do something you really like.

Networking isn't a fast way to wealth -- but if you focus on sharing and giving in areas you enjoy, in an environment of current and potential clients, you will ultimately reap great rewards. And since you enjoy the activities where you are making the contributions, you won't mind being patient -- you are not suffering an ordeal while you wait for results to materialize.

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