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The Power of Networking

Two people shaking hands

Networking … just the thought of it makes some people want to head for the exit.  It’s like eating broccoli. You know you need to do it but just don’t want to. So let’s discuss ways we can make it more palatable, perhaps even enjoyable.

Before we get started, let’s remind ourselves why it is important to put yourself out there and meet new people. A long time ago, I recall speaking to my uncle and telling him how happy I was with a particular grade I received in a class that I can’t even recall (this is 25 years ago). He said something that has stuck with me all these years: “Just remember it is not what you know that is important but rather who you know.” I remember thinking, what does that mean?

I am doing great in school, I am on the way to becoming a doctor, who cares about being popular or not. I am smart and people will notice that and respect me because of it. Except that is not really true.

Maybe if you are the next Albert Einstein and your brainpower is comparable to IBM’s Watson you will have the world beating at your door. But the reality is that for us mere mortals,  getting into an Ivy League and getting a fancy degree is just not enough. What really separates the people who make it at the highest levels and the people who don’t is who they know.

The Power to Persuade

I believe that what really leads to success, beyond a certain minimum level of competence in your chosen profession, is the ability to persuade. If you are not familiar with Robert Cialdini’s book, “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion” then you should be. Cialdini’s book is a real gamechanger, and it has been referenced in so many other forms of literature, as well as the internet at large, that it is important to at least be familiar with it.

Concepts like reciprocation, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity are so fundamental to the understanding of business and personal relationships that they are sometimes taken for granted.  

No matter whether you are in sales or a dentist trying to develop a practice, incorporating the important points from the book will greatly increase your ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships. Daniel Pink’s “To Sell is Human,” is another great book that highlights the need to develop superior communication skills with others because even those who are not in a “sales” job, ultimately need to develop the skills of “selling” if they are going to be able to influence and persuade others.

If all this is true, and I truly believe that it is, then how can one improve their ability to communicate with others and ultimately persuade or “sell” them on their new start-up idea, business plan, need for a raise etc? Well, certainly you could read all the literature in the world on the topic and become a world-class expert on the theory of persuasion but ultimately you need to put it in the reps in the real world.

That means you need to get out there and TALK TO PEOPLE. And that means you NEED to network (the verb)! There is no getting around it.

But How Exactly Do You “Network”?

An interesting question. How exactly can you increase your web of relationships so that when you need to call in a favor you can reach for your digital Rolodex and just make things happen? From my own experience, there is no one technique or method that will do it. It entails changing your entire mindset. For those who find that speaking to others, especially strangers, is difficult, then pitching them an idea that really risks rejection can be near impossible.

You will need to build up that confidence with baby steps and by changing your attitude. As an aside, one does not need to be an extreme extrovert to have a large network (in fact that may even be a detriment).

Going back to Pink’s “To Sell is Human,” work by Adam Grant shows that ambiverts (those who are in the relative middle of the intro-extrovert spectrum) are the ones who tend to be the most successful.

So you simply need a certain amount of extroversion (i.e. I don’t think you need to have the charisma and the presence of a president like Reagan or Clinton, but you should have enough to be interesting). Beyond that, I believe that reframing your mindset and perspective into seeing the better parts of human nature and into believing that your life can become more full and interesting with every new person you meet can help.

Emerson had a great line: “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” If one of early America’s greatest writers can believe that, then certainly I think we can. In more contemporary times, the late Anthony Bourdain really embodied this ethos. He could visit any place in the world and genuinely be interested in sharing meals and learning from the locals, no matter the depths of their poverty and hardships.

When you change your mindset about how you view people, i.e. from vehicles that can be used to propel your career or your life (or chess pieces to move on a board) to actual individuals who have interests, emotions, dreams and ambitions, that alone can help to improve your ability to communicate with others and therefore develop an enhanced network.

Make a point to do something difficult every day by starting out with small tests and small wins. I recall when I was in high school I was introduced to Dale Carnegies’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” As I was reading and highlighting the book on the subway, I remember a man who was standing nearby started talking to me and told me how that one book really changed his life.

So I took the lessons in the book to heart and started doing some of the things that Carnegie advocated. Simple things like smiling and calling people by their name. I would approach strangers and smile and say hello.

In the beginning, this was difficult and strange. After a while, I realized that if I came across as easygoing and genuinely friendly, other people would oblige and conversations would start. Now, over 20+ years later, I find that all the principles in Carnegie’s book along with others I have picked up along the way, have really helped me in any success I may have achieved up until now. But one thing I would stress is, approach others in an easygoing, casual manner. If you come across as too aggressive and/or too pushy, everyone you meet will naturally be turned away.

But How Do I REALLY Build my Business Network?

When asked why he robbed banks, notorious criminal Willie Sutton said, “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” And that is how you should build your business network. By going where your clients are, by finding out and talking to your customers, and by meeting your suppliers/distributors. If you are in the medical or law fields, you go where the people who refer you patients, or clients, respectively, are (as well as where the patients or clients themselves might be).

I would recommend joining trade societies, local chambers of commerce, and other such groups. Not just join but volunteer. That is a great way to meet new people. It also demonstrates a level of commitment that makes you seem more genuine and thereby more trustworthy.

Go to networking events and conferences– yes, they can be boring, but make it a game. Commit to meeting and introducing yourself to at least 2-3 new people. Once you do that you can relax and have a drink but not before.

Make it productive if you are even going to make the effort to go. Finally learn the art of small talk. There are plenty of books, websites or simply people you may know who can advise you on that.

And don’t forget that important connections can also be made from a friend of a friend (or a friend of an acquaintance). So be nice to EVERYONE!

Take Home Points

1. Networking is not an option – it absolutely necessary for success and may be more important than brains and hardwork

2. Understand the power of persuasion and the need to learn how to sell

3. Networking requires effort: go out and make every encounter with a new person count. The next person you meet may change your life!

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