This time of year brings more networking opportunities than any sane person wants to deal with, and begs the question, “Is there a better way to do this?” My answer, as you have no doubt already deduced, is “Absolutely!” As with most skills, there is a range of ways to be effective in networking, and it is a huge, multifaceted topic. This article is narrowly tailored to address two common weaknesses that I see among avid networkers. Some professionals are great at making contacts—they have lunches with the right people and generate a lot of business opportunities—and yet they don't enjoy it at all. Many others truly thrive on meeting people and becoming friends and yet they rarely move past the friend stage to proactively generate business opportunities. Both of these approaches are okay, and produce some results, but neither really hits that networking sweet spot.
So, what is the secret?
What do the best networkers do that the average person does not? Ideally networking is where fun and intentionality intersect. It is where we engage in activities we enjoy, with people we like AND we also look for ways to help those people out and create opportunities for ourselves. Therefore, the first order of business is to identify the people with whom we wish to develop relationships. There are a lot of smart, interesting people out there and some of them have the same interests you do. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak became friends because, in addition to having a passion for technology, they also enjoyed playing practical jokes on people. Long lasting, profitable relationships take more than just common work interests. We need to find people who we truly like, respect and with whom we have the potential for long-term, mutually beneficial relationships. Sure, you can schmooze highly placed people whom you don’t like or don’t respect, but if that type of interaction is the bulk of your networking, you will not be very happy.
Why is happiness even relevant here?
Fun is not selfish. It creates energy, enthusiasm and magnetism. You may be sufficiently motivated by financial considerations, status or success that you can drag yourself to an unending series of lunches, happy hours and conferences that you don’t enjoy; but lets face it, it is drudgery. While this version of networking may be sufficient to buy you an impressive book of business, or maneuver your way into a lucrative job, imagine how much more successful you would be if you actually enjoyed what you were doing? People like being around, and doing business with, happy people. Of course, for those who don't currently engage in much networking, the additional motivation and enthusiasm generated by focusing on fun should lead to even more dramatically improved results than for those in the drudgery camp.
What about intentionality?
There are three ways in which we need to be intentional in networking. The first is to proactive look for people whom you really like and who also might provide useful connections. Only a relatively small percentage of people you meet will meet both criteria, but that is okay, because you are busy and you probably don’t have time for hundreds of new friends. The second part is to create the relationship by extending invitations, and offering resources, referrals or opportunities. Once a relationship is established, the third aspect of intentionality comes into play. You must put aside whatever awkwardness you may feel, and actually talk business. I will not presume to say what an appropriate ratio of professional to personal conversation might be, as that will depend on the individuals, but if there isn’t some degree of work conversation, then it’s just a friendship. (I certainly don’t mean to disparage regular friendships. Those are fantastic as well. It is just important not to delude ourselves that we are networking when we are not.)
What is the bottom line?
Remember that networking is basically just about making friends who are also potentially useful from a business perspective. Have fun, but also stay focused. This means creating relationships with people you genuinely like and proactively engage in activities that you enjoy. There is more to networking than golf and happy hours. If you enjoy hunting, take business connections on a hunting trip. If you find satisfaction engaging in charitable activities, find likeminded business contacts and seek out opportunities to work together. Do you like sailing or bungee jumping? Whatever it is you like to do, you can find or create related networking opportunities. Nevertheless, remember to keep one eye on the big picture and don’t forget to bring up business topics at appropriate times.