Tuesday, February 03, 2009

CONNECTING IS NOT ENOUGH: The Need for a Strategic Approach to Networking

This column was originally published in The National Networker

It is something that we all swear by......but too many of us swear at.

It is something that we all recognise……but too many of us fail to understand.

It is something that offers us so much potential…...which too few of us manage to realise.

Some years ago, when I was the Managing Director of Business Referral Exchange, a national business network, one of our members, a bank manager, gave up his membership after a year.

“It’s been a complete waste of time”, he confided to his fellow group members. “I’ve only had six switchers from the group.” (A ‘switcher’ is a banking term in the UK for someone moving their account from a competitor to your bank.)

When this story reached me, I started asking contacts in banking what they felt a reasonable return would be from a year’s membership of one of our groups. I asked other business managers in the same bank. I asked business managers in other banks. I asked senior management figures in banking as well. They all shared the same view.

A reasonable return on investment for membership of such a group would be three switchers in a year. That figure would justify membership.

That’s right….three. Half of the figure the resigning member had achieved. He felt that his membership had been a “waste of time”, despite doubling what many agreed was a reasonable return of his investment. Why was this the case?

The answer would appear to be quite simple. The bank manager had not worked out what his return on investment should be. Quite simply, he didn’t know what success would look like.

This is all too common a problem. From talks across the UK at networking groups and events I have recognised two important factors that will prevent many businesses getting the most from their networking.

1 – Most people attend networking events or sign up to online networks because they are invited to do so.

2 – Most people join networks because they like the ‘buzz’, see a lot of activity or see other people winning business.

Neither of these are sound business sense. Neither suggests a purpose to membership, and that’s a major problem. Joining networks based on invitations and buzz does not lead to the right behaviour within the network. So many people go through the motions, with no thought to the outcome.

At a recent networking event I was talking to a slightly inebriated young lady who worked for a charity. She was there with a couple of colleagues and they were having a good time.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course; other than the fact that this was a networking event which offered them a tremendous opportunity to make some valuable connections.

“We don’t want to network!” she told me. “We’re from a homeless charity. What have we got to offer?”

Reading between the lines, I would think that her boss had sent the team along in the hope that they would spread the word of the charity and discover opportunities for partnerships and collaboration. But had that been communicated clearly to the team? The failure to communicate clear objectives allowed the team to push their own fears and self-doubts to the front of their minds, and gave them an excuse to focus on the abundance of drink rather than the abundance of conversation.

“You must go and network” is a common cry. The only problem is that it’s rarely followed by the question, “Why?”. People network blind, participating because others tell them that it’s a good thing to do, losing faith because they don’t know why they are there.

This is why so many people in business look down their noses at networking. Their experiences haven’t been positive. They picture small business owners desperately trying to sell to each other, the trepidation of walking into a room full of strangers, the frustration of not finding customers, This lack of understanding leaves people writing networking off, rather than looking at how they can make it work for themselves.

Over the coming months, this is a perception I want to try to change. My challenge is to encourage you to look at networking from different angles. My goal is to encourage you to set your goals from networking, know what you want to achieve, develop a strategy and measure the results.

The more focused we all are in our networking, the more we stand to benefit. Going to events with purpose, participating online with clarity and contributing to groups with vision will benefit all of us.

Looking at the wider picture can make a massive difference to our businesses as well. I want to move our understanding of networking away from a sales-based activity focused on events and specific websites and towards recognition of the benefits of collaboration, learning, peer support and knowledge sharing with connections from all backgrounds.

Networking is not just an activity for small business owners. It is an essential tool for leading politicians, the captains of industry, individuals within large firms and people looking for a new job.

As a business tool it needs to be considered and applied thoughtfully; allied to business goals with clear outcomes.

What I hope to demonstrate through this column is that networking is not just a numbers game. It’s not just about being at the event or what you do when you are there but why you are there in the first place.

Connecting is not enough. With the right approach, networking can be the most valuable tool your business possesses.

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