As they ascend the corporate ladder, many leaders do a curious thing … they stop networking. This can have a significant long-term negative impact on a career. I have observed this phenomenon over much of my professional life, most recently in conversations with a number of senior business leaders who have unexpectedly found themselves in career transition. Many spend the first few months of the job search rebuilding networks they failed to maintain while employed. However, the need for leaders to maintain effective, dynamic networks goes well beyond a possible date with destiny in the ranks of the unemployed.
In spite of our hectic schedules, networking is essential to forward-looking leadership. Leaders with strong networking skills benefit themselves, their organizations, their community and the people in their network. Networking is more than creating a safety net for an inevitable period of career transition; it is a means to access an enormous pool of resources with unlimited benefits. The reasons executives stop networking are manifold, and I will address many of them in this article. More importantly, I will speak to the investment required and the payoff for those who do it well.
Why is networking a challenge for many leaders today? What gets in the way? There are five fundamental obstacles that surface on a consistent basis:
- “I don’t have enough time to network.” This is the easiest to overcome, as you will see in the investment section of the article. This is simply a scheduling and commitment issue.
- “I am doing just fine and don’t need any help.” For years I have observed that leaders often fall into the “complacency trap” as they fail to see the benefits of engaging with new people and being exposed to different ideas and ways of thinking.
- “My job is secure, so I don’t need to spend time meeting new people.” Unfortunately, I have seen too many leaders who felt safe in their positions fall victim to corporate downsizing. This false sense of job security was once rampant, but the reality of fading company loyalty in today’s economy is finally taking hold.
- “I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn, so I am networking.” These helpful social media tools serve a useful purpose and can enhance networking. But, they should not replace face-to-face human interaction required in effective network building.
- “I’m not very good at making new connections and in fact, find it intimidating.” This is a troublesome, and common, admission for many. Remember that networking can and should be tailored to your style and personality. The secret is to find the method that maximizes your strengths, regardless if you are an introvert or an extrovert.
Helpful Tip! I find the best way to shift a way of thinking is to ask (of myself or others) challenging questions. For example: Does my team have the best talent available? Am I getting the personal development I need? Is my job secure and if not, do I have a network of people who can help me? Do I have quick access to helpful professional resources and competitive intelligence outside my company? Do I wield the appropriate level of influence in my organization? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, this article was written for you.
Okay, you understand the importance of networking and its potential obstacles, so what comes next? Networking must be a priority. Rethink your calendar. Be selfless and help others. Make personal interaction the ultimate goal versus simply connecting via the Internet. Vibrant networks take time to build and a long-term commitment to sustain and grow them. Here are five practical ways to make a meaningful investment in networking:
- Take an honest look at your calendar. Where you may see little time for networking let me challenge you a bit. There are five opportunities a week for coffee/breakfast and five opportunities a week for lunch. Start utilizing at least one of these times each week to meet with someone new (or nurture an existing work relationship). You have to eat, so why not spend this time with another professional and accomplish two objectives during this time.
- Make time to nurture contacts in your network, both in and out of your organization. Nurture these relationships at the same time you are expanding new ones. Relationships must be maintained and it takes work. The worst thing you can do is reach out to someone in your hour of need and realize that you failed to maintain the relationship.
- LinkedIn is my recommended tool for connecting through social media, but Facebook and Twitter can be useful in building personal networks. It is important to have complete and transparent profiles with pictures, but don’t use these tools passively. My post, Practical LinkedIn 4.0, offers specific tips on how to get the most out of LinkedIn (found on my web site at www.serviampartners.com under Thought Leadership/Blogs).
- Attend or host relevant speaker events, workshops, seminars or other social mixers to meet fellow professionals. Keep an eye out for relevant speaker events in your area and make an effort to attend when possible. Consider hosting or co-hosting events at your office or another venue. Organizing breakfast or lunch meetings with notable speakers on relevant topics allows you to play host and invite other business leaders you might not meet other ways. My company co-hosts leadership forums each quarter with a few of our key clients and this provides an excellent opportunity to network with senior level peers.
- Volunteer and get involved in the community. Where is your passion? What causes excite you? Getting involved, first and foremost, should be about helping others. But, volunteering your time and serving on non-profit boards are excellent ways to meet like-minded professionals. Jo Ann Herold, Chief Marketing Officer for Honey Baked Ham, shares this insight: “Networking and volunteering have always been important in my career. I like to join organizations I am passionate about and I abide by the old saying: The more you give, the more you receive! I try to take a leadership role when I volunteer because it’s a great way to get to know the organization, the members and the people we serve.”
Helpful Tip! Integrate networking into other activities. Neighborhood swim meets, kid’s sports’ practices, church social activities and community volunteering all can be fortuitous opportunities to meet other professionals. I have found more success in these casual settings than through any other avenue. There is something authentic about connecting initially as parents, through shared interests before discussing professional backgrounds. It builds trust, which often leads to a mutually beneficial relationship.
Is investing time and energy in building a viable network worth it? Is there a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow? The answer is an emphatic—yes! Leaders who are skilled at networking have access to people, resources and information to help solve problems and create opportunities. It encourages personal growth, benefits organizations and positively impacts the community. Although there are more, here are seven positive results to be gleaned from establishing and growing a dynamic network:
- Access to personal development and coaching will help you grow and keep you engaged. Most leaders I know say development and coaching are lacking in their organizations today. A dynamic network gives you access to new ideas, current trends and an ongoing opportunity to engage with a group of peers/mentors. This flow of information can help you and your organization stay ahead of the competition.
- Your influence will grow. Time spent on growing and nurturing professional networks inside and outside your organization will greatly enhance your personal influence and effectiveness as a leader. People are more likely to buy in to what you are saying and doing if you have built a trusting relationship with them.
- Get ahead of the looming war for talent. The generational landscape is rapidly changing. Baby Boomers are leaving the workforce in great numbers and the Millennial generation is increasingly being thrust into leadership roles and they are not as experienced or prepared as many companies would prefer. Networking provides awareness of (and potential access to) talented professionals who you can call on if you need to go outside your organization to hire. Stay connected within your industry, know the players and develop trusted networking resources to help find the best talent.
- You can do immense good in the community. Investing time in getting your connections to support your causes (and in return support theirs) is a great way to exponentially leverage positive influence to serve the needs of others.
- You can help your extended network with their business and career needs if you are highly networked. Connecting others to new jobs, positive business relationships, and the like is an excellent strategy that helps others and develops goodwill, which may flow your way in the future.
- Your business will benefit from a network built on a foundation of authentic relationships. If you are in sales or business development, view networking as a desire to do business with your friends rather than taking a transactional approach. I have seen first hand that you will be exposed to more viable opportunities after you take the time to genuinely know someone and invest in the relationship.
- If you are in a job search, a strong network will help you. With company loyalty to employees increasingly disappearing, it is likely you will be in career transition one day. You owe it to yourself and your family to prepare for that possibility.
Helpful Tip! An important underlying theme of effective networking is Paying it Forward. Make your efforts about helping others and serving their needs and you will find networking to be a worthwhile, fulfilling experience that will ultimately serve your own needs. Remember: when it is all about you, people see through that and networking becomes a miserable, laborious experience on many levels.
To conclude, I would suggest that leaders who neglect their networks are missing out on a critical component of their roles. By integrating networking as a fundamental aspect of your leadership and by proactively developing and nurturing networking-related skills, you create benefits for your team, your organization and yourself. Randy Patterson, Chief Human Resources Officer for BlueLinx and a committed networker shares this insight: “Making the personal commitment to truly building and cultivating my network has been one of the best decisions of my life. In addition to building knowledge to solve business problems or helping me to find great talent for my organization, networking has introduced me to many friends who I will keep for the rest of my life.”
I practice what I preach by meeting people at the La Madeline restaurant near my office beginning at 7:00 a.m. for coffee up to four days a week (read Why I Enjoy Being the Mayor of La Madeleine), and most of my lunches are with clients, friends and networking contacts. I have spent many years building my network and am proud of the highly synergistic relationships we have developed to help our respective businesses, the community and each other. Your next great employee, business opportunity, Big Idea, opportunity to influence, community impact story or career move may only be a coffee meeting away.
It is time to get started.
Randy Hain is an award winning author, executive coach, consultant, speaker and the president of Serviam Partners (www.ServiamPartners.com).