Branching Out

Wednesday, August 1, 2007 - 11:30

Networking is all about branching out and connecting with other people to establish genuine relationships. By Deborah Tarrant

The woman in the pink jacket still stands out in the mind of Robyn Henderson. At a networking function some years ago, Henderson introduced herself to this woman and finished her usual friendly meet-and-greet patter with a pleasant aside. Coincidentally, she had noticed they’d be sitting at the same table for dinner.

Then she watched as the pink jacket wearer headed straight for the dinner table and shifted her handbag to another table. “I was devastated,” recalls Henderson. “Apparently she’d decided I wouldn’t be a useful contact and she’d be better elsewhere.”

Henderson probably had the last laugh. She was the guest speaker on that occasion and her topic – as always – was the fine art of networking. The woman who had acted with indecent haste had broken the penultimate rule of the accomplished networker by revealing her venal intention. She was only attending the function for what she could get out of it.

Henderson is Australia’s foremost exponent on networking. The author of 23 books on the subject, she started exploring the power of networking in 1990 and abandoned her sales job, initially to run one of the earliest formal business networking groups, before moving on to an international speaking career and to teach employees in corporates how to hone their networking skills.

Last year she pipped British First Lady Cherie Blair to a standing ovation after delivering a speech in Scotland for the Global Banking Alliance. No prizes for guessing how she landed that gig: a long-term contact who now works for the World Bank nominated Henderson. They’d met, of course, through networking.

In 17 years as an uber-networker, Henderson has accumulated 25,000 names on a database… but she’d never contemplate sending a group email to all. Best practice networking is far more refined.

Networking basics

In its simplest form, networking is purely about expanding your range of social, professional or business contacts. It can be done formally through networking groups or in seemingly less focused environments. It may occur on the golf course, at a soccer game, the races, sailing… or, in the case of Kim McGuinness who has been running networking events since the mid-1990s, poolside, where she landed a deal at her daughter’s swimming lessons.

“It’s been happening since people lived in caves, but serious networkers understand the process is organic,” says McGuinness, who founded the 12,000-strong Network Central, a business networking community with a whole-of-life approach.

Indeed, in the time-poor 21st century, what Henderson calls “lifestyle networking” – making assiduous choices about where, how and with whom you spend your time – is gathering momentum. So too is “forensic networking”, which is all about researching and targeting who you want to meet.

Corporate networking

Corporate networking occurs within an organisation where individuals mingle with key influencers, or laterally across a business. Corporate players also network externally to meet potential clients or business partners, or keep up with industry banter and trends. And while small business owners have similar motivations, networking also presents an escape from isolation for microbusiness operators.

Formal networking practices gathered pace through the 1990s as corporate employees and small business owners, driven to increase their range of prospects and generate referrals, awoke to the power of word-of-mouth marketing. Now in Australia, on any given day people meet – often to hear guest speakers – over breakfast, lunch or dinner. If all goes to plan, they will grow meaningful, or perhaps profitable, relationships. Henderson has conducted research showing that at an average networking event – that is, not an industry-specific gabfest – one in four people met will become a prospect, a referee or a client.

Commonly, the endgame involves clinching a new deal, although for some it’s more about widening the circle, increasing knowledge, shooting the breeze and learning from like-minded or inspiring individuals.

Pick your modus operandi

Crucial to the success of the formal networker is choosing the right networking group. When Megan Tough left the corporate world to establish her own strategic human resources business, Complete Potential, she cast her net wide joining as many networks as she could attend. “It was a learning process, a matter of trial and error,” she says. And she learned that some groups are more hardcore in their approach than others. She also discovered the importance of quality over quantity among the contacts made.

Essentially, networking is about human interaction: once the contact is established it’s about building trust, which takes time and concentration because, as McGuinness puts it succinctly: “People do business with people they like.”

The world’s largest business networking organisation, Business Networks International (BNI), imposes a set structure guaranteeing its members that only one person in each professional classification is able to join an individual group, or chapter, thereby increasing that person’s potential for doing business within the group. It also offers members brief windows at weekly meetings to promote their businesses, and actively encourages referrals, even insisting members fill out referral forms; and it claims great successes.

For example, BNI Australia’s National Director Geoff Kirkwood reports one member receives up to 80 per cent of his business through his chapter, and most credit the network with 50 per cent of referrals.

The group was started 22 years ago in the US by Ivan Misner who sees networking as another component in the marketing armoury, along with direct marketing or advertising. Now BNI has more than 4300 chapters with more than 86,000 members in 30 countries. Australia has the fourth largest contingent with 168 chapters. Dr Misner claims the number of referrals annually through BNI is 3.3 million, generating business worth $US2.4 billion.

Despite the structured operations, even Misner underlines trust as the vital element in networking success. During a recent Australian visit, he explained: “If you give a referral, you give some of your reputation with it. You must get to know these people. It’s like your keys – to the car, house, whatever – you wouldn’t just hand them to anyone.”

A good conversation

Such structured groups aren’t for everyone, argues Tough who has found over the years she has tended to meet, if not the same people, then similar kinds of people when networking. Almost every group has business-hungry mortgage brokers, financial planners, coaches, designers and public relations people, she says. Tough has opted instead for a subtler style, honing in on events run by industry bodies and functions where she has a genuine interest in the guest speaker’s topic. Like many, these days she limits her networking groups to two or three. She arrives with the expectation of having a good conversation with two people she hadn’t met before, and invariably leaves having achieved her goal.

Anecdotally at least, there’s a backlash to what we might call aggressive front-foot networking.

Stephanie Pursley, a partner at law firm Freehills, who started the Freehills Women in Business Networking Forum in 1994, says the invitation-only gatherings she organises are not directly about securing business. “I don’t think I’ve ever landed a piece of legal business through one of our events,” she says, although the firm has undoubtedly raised its profile along the way. Pursley’s take-out from networking is inspiration, ideas and mentoring. Its purpose, she believes, is to be enjoyable and enriching.

A more relaxed approach perhaps, but Pursley still runs classes before each networking function to pass on advice and etiquette tips to help younger employees benefit from the occasions. Not everyone is a natural networker, she understands, and “they have more fun if they know what to do”. As a novice networker Pursley herself gleaned handy hints from a book called How to Behave at a Cocktail Party.

The rules

There are fundamental rules for good networking and, as they say, it’s not rocket science.

One outstanding rule is being clear on what you want to achieve: widening your net of contacts. Direct selling should not be the objective, say the experts. There may be real prospects in the room. You may receive referrals from some people, and some may become clients. However, overzealous networkers who exchange as many business cards as possible and gladhand as many potential prospects through the course of an event are a turn-off.

“The master networker is altruistic and tries to find solutions for other people. It’s not about what you can take, but who you can help,” says Robyn Henderson.

BNI’s Ivan Misner agrees. Effective networking is about establishing credibility “by building relationships with others who can refer you once they have come to trust you, have confidence in you and feel very loyal to you”, he says.

Bad networkers behave in an overtly shallow manner. They’re not really interested in what’s being said and their eyes constantly dart around the room looking for a better connection. The accomplished networker, Pursley insists, is “real” and always “present” in the conversation.
There are resounding dos and don’ts. Always arrive early and leave late. “Whether there was a speaker or some other kind of entertainment that was good, bad or indifferent, you’ve just shared that experience with a group of people [and] that provides a common link,” Henderson points out. “Think of it as being part of work, just in a different location. You don’t knock off until the event is over.”

Of course, overcoming social awkwardness is a big part of the story. The overarching rule of good networking is always talk to strangers. One of Henderson’s early motivations for spreading the word followed her surprise at how many people turned up to an event with a friend and spoke only to that person. “People don’t wear signs saying ‘I’m going to connect you to your next best customer’, they just talk to you.”
If walking into a roomful of unknowns turns a successful professional into a wallflower, the popular tip is to act like the host. Find someone standing alone and make them feel comfortable. Take the initiative to start conversations. The joy of networking is you can use the same introductory technique repeatedly: “Hi I’m Joe. So tell me, what do you do at Widgets Inc.?”.

Extroverts may seem to be natural-born networkers, but introverts tend to be good listeners who often ultimately do it better, they say. “Try not to talk about yourself, but listen to others,” advises McGuinness.

There are gender differences. Men tend to be more upfront about business and use fewer words, while women usually want to get to know someone prior to discussing business. Does this explain the proliferation of women’s networking groups? McGuinness suggests neither gender has an edge. “They just do it differently and could learn a lot from each other.”

Technology’s role

In this era of heightened connectivity, we might pause to consider the need for face-to-face meeting. Doesn’t technology deliver a timesaving shortcut to networking nirvana, eliminating sprucing up in a suit and costly travelling time?

Definitely, technology plays a crucial role, but it’s most useful in support and follow up of contacts. It’s precisely because so much of our working lives are spent communicating online that face-to-face networking has increased impetus, McGuinness believes.

Technology’s most significant role is in the nice-to-meet-you emails sent in the days immediately following an initial contact; these may include information relevant to the recipient (not multiple megabytes of promotional material), emphasises Henderson. SMS messaging may serve a similar, if briefer, function.

Henderson believes traditional communication methods – phone calls or handwritten notes – also pack more punch these days, and says choosing the means of following-up with a new contact demands thought. Simply adding someone to your database as a prospect without asking is off limits.

No doubt the woman in the pink jacket who brushed off Australia’s most influential networker learned that one – the hard way.

AIM defines networking as connecting with others without the need for immediate gain. It is a proactive investment in the future aimed at building a relationship with another well before assistance is sought.


Networking lessons

It’s possible to learn to be a better networker. Busier lives, smaller families and the computer age all contribute to making us less socially adept, suggests Robyn Henderson, who runs one-day Network or Perish workshops (www.networkingtowin.com.au). Her classes aim to convey some of the subtleties of networking; for example, beyond finding obvious prospects at an event, how to tap real connectors and spheres of influence. She also teaches basics including “how to talk to anyone, about anything, any time”.

When law firm Freehills’ partner Stephanie Pursley runs her preparatory sessions for lawyers, she includes practical tips, such as bringing business cards and wearing the name tag “up high and straight”.

Breaking into a group of people you’ve never met before is a simple series of steps, she says. “When you see a couple of people in conversation, stand on the edge of the group in the direct line of vision and establish eye contact. The process may take a whole agonising minute before they let you into the conversation.

“When introducing yourself provide at least three hooks (potential conversation openers) that [the new contact] can react to. Be a good listener, be observant and learn to read body language,” she suggests. And her golden rule? Never talk to anyone at an event for more than 10 minutes.

Later this year, BNI will open an Australian branch of The Referral Institute (www.referralinstitute.com) to teach the practice of generating and giving referrals.