Networking: Make the Ask
August 4th, 2014 by Marcy Schwab
I walked into my last networking breakfast muttering under my breath, “I really don’t want to be here. Why did I say yes to this thing?” I’m fairly comfortable around people and people think of me as extroverted, but
being extremely petite, I find walking into a room of (taller) strangers, quite uncomfortable. I survived the one I attended, and I even enjoyed myself a little bit. When I tell people that I network to build my business, I bet they immediately conjure up something that looks a lot like that breakfast: a room with strangers, making small talk, and handing out business cards. But networking is so much more, and you don’t have to walk into a room of strangers to build your network.
Networking is so important, whether you’re looking for your next job or not. Remember the old saying, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? I think today it’s something like, “it’s who you know AND what you know” probably in that order. You may not be in the market for anything right now, but when you are, getting to the right person for whatever it is you are trying to do is the most critical step. If you can’t get the conversation, you can’t sell the business or get the job. Once you find the right person, it’s important that you have the right conversation with him to make the interaction meaningful to help you further your cause.
Aside from that terrifying business breakfast, how else can you network? Every interaction you have is truly a networking opportunity. They happen organically for one reason or another; it could be someone you meet at a party or through a business contact. These interactions are your universe coming to you. You can also be strategic about meeting people. For this path, your contacts, your LinkedIn list, your old college buddies – they are the best and most practical place to start.
Every Interaction is a Networking Opportunity
I saw a posting on my Facebook feed from an old friend of my sister’s who was asking a favor of anyone out in Facebook-land to take some pictures at the local grocery store as input for her successful organic foods business. I was happy to help as it was an easy favor. So, I took the pictures, sent them to her, and let her know what I’m doing. I asked if she might have any thoughts on networking into her community to find clients for the kind of work I do. Her response? She responded that she already has a coach with whom she is very happy (that’s actually good news…she gets what coaching can do), and she would be happy to think of me when she encounters other entrepreneurs. She asked some follow-up questions, which I thoughtfully answered. We’ll see if it yields any business; you never know, it might! A simple favor turned into a networking opportunity.
Okay, so you want to be strategic about networking. Who is on your list?
When starting my business, I knew my contacts were going to be important. I started creating a list of people who I thought may be helpful to me. The list was long and unorganized, and it seemed unmanageable. At that point, I had to prioritize who I was going to call first and why. At first, I was still honing my business idea and positioning of myself, so my first calls needed to be to those people who knew me well and could help me shape my offering. These people may or may not be the same people who could help me find new clients, but I made it clear to them what I needed from them at this moment (see What’s the Conversation?)
Once I got through those conversations, I went to the second part of my list, which contained the names of equally important people – those who are well connected and could get me to the decision-makers I needed. I started with trusted people who would understand that I was still in the early stages and be able to help guide me not only to the right people but in how to say the right things to those people.
Finally, two years in, I am just now going to the third group on my list who are those that I know, but not as well, who are well connected and may know some interesting people with whom I should connect. At this point, I have a strong work track record, a refined story to tell, and I’m ready to sell myself more confidently.
What’s the Conversation? Talk Thoughtfully, Listen Carefully
No matter whether you got to the person through a more organic interaction or through your strategic list, you want to have some idea of how to approach a networking conversation. The nature of the conversation, of course depends on your desired outcome. So, I recommend that you ask yourself a few simple questions before you go into the networking conversation:
- What do I want to know about the other person?
- What do I want this person to know about me?
- What do I want this person to know about what I want?
- What do I want this person to do for me?
Before we get to that last question and its value, it’s important to think about the balance and tone of the conversation. You probably already understand that listening to another person goes a long way to building trust with them (See Blog Post: Building Trust). Trust is critical when networking. Why? Think about a typical networking conversation. It’s often heavily unbalanced with either the networker doing all of the talking or the contact doing much of the talking. How can your contact trust that they won’t harm a relationship without learning more about you first? Similarly, how can they provide a valuable lead and put you in touch with the right people if they don’t know what you want and why you’re qualified. At the same time, how do you know how to make the appropriate request if you haven’t learned anything about them?
Talk thoughtfully and listen carefully. Get clear ahead of time about what you want them to know about you, and figure you what’s important to learn about them.
It’s All About the Ask
It’s an inherent human trait to want to help others. I am always amazed at how eager and receptive people are when you make a clear request. A networking contact is great to have, but it’s what you do with that interaction that gets you where you want to go.
Making a clear request gives your contact a concrete next step to take on your behalf. They look something like:
- “Can you pass along my resume to the hiring manager with an introduction?”
- “Can you introduce me to 3 people in the industry in a certain geography?”
- “Could you please take a look at my resume and make suggestions based on a particular audience?”
- “I noticed on LinkedIn that you know X, Y, and Z. Can you put me in touch with them?”
Follow Up and Thank You
It’s so important to thank your contact, and it gives you the opportunity to remind him of the request and his agreement to follow through. It reinforces your gratitude while continuing the dialogue. I find it highly valuable to follow up with networking contacts periodically after our initial contact as well. Staying top of mind and providing an update, gives you continued exposure to highly networked people that can pay off later.
Don’t forget, too, that you may have the opportunity to reciprocate now or in the future.
A Success Story
I am hardly shy about telling people, random strangers sometimes, what I am doing and that I am busy growing my business. I often turn every interaction into a networking opportunity. One day I was talking to the parents of one of my daughter’s friends. She’s an attorney in the area, and when she asked me what I do for a living, I explained my business and the value I create with my clients. She was intrigued, so I took the opportunity to ask her for introductions to executives who she knows through her work. Lo and behold some months later, I got an email from one of her contacts indicating that they had an interest in hiring someone who does the type of work that I do.