Networking is one of the most valuable skills an individual needs to have when navigating society. Without establishing a good network individuals navigate the world with only the opportunities and knowledge that they come across directly. It is true, the opportunities and knowledge that an individual comes across in life are usually good enough. Yet, the potential opportunities and knowledge that are available to that same individual through a good network are nearly always far greater. Individuals can find success all on their own. However, with the power of a solid network more opportunities and knowledge become available to an individual that can be turned into successful situations. Those situations can be valuable in a number of ways from family reasons to political reasons to business reasons.
My favorite example of the value of networking comes from running a boat. If you’ve ever been around a boat before you can easily relate the task of running and navigating a boat to the task of running and navigating your life. Boats move in a 3D space, have many complex systems that can break down without warning, and are influenced by things outside of their control. When running a boat there are manuals, maps, navigation systems, etc. You name it there is some sort of guidance to help you run that aspect of the boat (if you’ve ever walked down the self-help isle at a Barnes and Nobles you would see a similar list of manuals for running your life). Despite all of these manuals and guides, taking a boat on a trip between two pieces of land that are separated by a large body of water can be a daunting task. There are numerous guides to make the trips easier yet many people make mistakes. They run aground, they break down mid-trip, they go the wrong way, all this despite the maps and books telling them what to do. Why then do so many boaters make these mistakes? The answer is simple. It has nothing to do with their ability to operate a boat or read the material; it has to do with the lack of knowledge about the unknown passage they are making. In addition to reading, the books and acquiring knowledge about how to run the boat for the trip they should also ask around ask friends of friends who have made the trip what to watch. They need to make some connections who can advise about the water current, the landmarks, and places to stop along the way for more advice. They may even come across a mate or two that is looking for a ride to a destination along the way that can come along for the passage and help where appropriate. This advice is the reason for seaside pubs that have existed for centuries, the reason that yacht clubs exist, and the reason most boaters seem to know so many people. This is networking at its best and regardless of the opportunity or knowledge that is being sought, this is an example of the value that networking truly has.
If the goal is finding individuals to play bridge with, finding someone to start a business with, or even if the goal is ensuring the children in your family know the most popular children in the school, networking can get the desired results. Meeting and establishing relationships with people in the social circles around your children’s schools, neighborhood, or community is the only way to ensure your family can participate in or at least know about all of the activities without the impossible task of organizing all of them. I am not talking about being the neighborhood busy body and gossiping with everyone on your block, in your church, or at your community center. I am talking about allowing yourself to make an introduction to or have a conversation with someone you run into and talk to them in a meaningful enough way to open the door for future conversations. These potentially open doors are people with whom you are socially involved and are who define your network. Webster’s defines 'social network' as “a person's family, neighbors, and friends with whom they are socially involved”
Regardless of how you ended up having the conversation, or who you are having the conversation with, having a meaningful conversation is the key component to quickly establishing a relationship. The meaningful conversation generally consists of two aspects: asking enough questions to discover if you can help the other individual and listening well enough to know if you should ask the other individual for help. To do these things it takes exposing areas where you are lacking. It takes talking about the algorithm you haven’t mastered or the political group you haven’t been able to crack. It takes ensuring you listen to the other person’s needs well enough to offer your assistance to offer your friend’s assistance and to expect nothing in return.
Parents use networking to ensure their child’s good upbringing. Business executives use networking to secure their next customer, partnership, or career move. Politicians use networking to gain access to countless constituents, supporters, and lawmakers throughout a campaign and term in office.
As an entrepreneur or technologist, networking is a skill that has countless benefits. Let me introduce you to Nathan. Nathan is the founder and CEO of a local search and networking company, nPost. Nathan has found the value of networking and says,
“Networking is the key to every startups success. Without it, most startups wouldn't have their first employee, advisor, or customer. It is the essential requirement for every entrepreneur to be successful.”
I know networking seems extremely difficult to the shy person, let me introduce you to Robin. Robin was shy and refused to network. In fact, in larger social situations she closed up and wouldn’t talk to anyone. Eventually, Robin’s husband interviewed for a job at a local software company. Halfway through the interview Robin’s husband decided that his wife would be a better fit for the job and started talking about capabilities. He carefully listened to the hiring manager’s needs and thought of the best way he could help. This best way, was through an introduction to someone else he knew. These days Robin is well versed in networking and often takes the opportunity to network her way through the company. Robin says,
“I never realized that I could network easily as a naturally shy person. The faster I start to tell people about my shortcomings, the faster they start offering help and I do the same for them because I know how valuable it is.”
Maybe you already have been networking for years and are starting to wonder why you still do it despite the huge number of contacts you have all over the world in almost every walk of life. Let me introduce you to Tom. Tom has been networking for years and has translated that skill of networking into a full time job. He knows the right people in the right circles and is now founder of a local CEO networking group Athena Chiefs. Tom says,
“I enjoy networking because I enjoy getting to know new people, and actually like introducing myself to strangers and getting to know diverse backgrounds. Networking shouldn’t feel like work – it does take some energy to explain your background and what you do quickly to a stranger, but some of the best friends I have today are people I just thrust out my hand to and met. I guess I’d also thank my mom for teaching me to always introduce strangers to one another – that’s true at parties and it’s the essence of the CEO networking group I run. It’s fun to connect people and then see some real value come of it between them. You should consider doing so a non-paid position and giving unto karma always has a tendency to come back to you.”
Simple introductions go a long way. If you have a close friend or family member that knows your needs, they can easily make introductions between you and other close friends that may be able to fill those needs. These in-depth introductions can be valuable yet they don’t always expand the breadth of opportunities available. A single individual can’t feasibly have more than seven or eight close friends. Yet that same individual can easily have 50 to 500 acquaintances.
Keeping those acquaintances and friends organized with their contact information readily available is easy to do with the internet today. Sites like LinkedIn.com, Plaxo.com, and Ning.com serve this purpose. To consolidate the contact information of the people within your network of friends and acquaintances and to make those contact’s networks visible to you as well. These sites help expose the all of the potential people that could help you and are at least a friend of a friend. This is great for some advanced networking techniques yet it doesn’t help when you don’t know whom you are looking to meet and why you are looking to meet them in the first place. For the most value and the most basic task of networking, you need to meet people outside of the direct reach of your current network.
Meeting those new acquaintances can be the hardest task. Yet looking back on the quotes from Nathan, Robin, and Tom it is easy to see how valuable those connections truly can be. The easiest way to reach outside of your network of friends is to attend networking or mixer type events. Whether you are looking for love, business contacts, or political heavyweights, networking events can go a long way. Networking events come in many forms. From meal based events held by local networking groups like Seattle Lunch 2.0 or nPost Events to speaker-focused events held by trade organizations or industry companies like Startpad's events and WTIA Events. Whatever the draw to the attendees, good food or great speakers, the events are focused on bringing similarly interested people to the same place for the purpose of making connections and finding other individuals that can help in some way. The best advice to entering these types of events is to be prepared to ask for something, to talk about your needs, and to be willing to listen closely to the needs of others and truly offer assistance where you can.
Networking alone certainly won’t make you rich, popular, or even successful. Yet, the opportunities and knowledge that become available can be turned into situations that offer those things. Building a strong network will help you navigate life and is one of the most valuable skills an individual needs to have.