“Here’s a simple but powerful rule – always give people more than they expect to get.” – Nelson Boswell
The Networking Mindset
For our purposes, a “network” is a set of mutually beneficial relationships that you have built over time. Strong networks enable you to add value to your organization (or life) by giving you additional levers for enacting change and getting things done. The key to a strong, sustainable network is to strive to contribute more to the individual relationships than you get in return. If you are constantly on the lookout for how you can contribute, your network will be self-sustaining and will continue to grow.
The “Core” Network
Wherever you are in your networking journey, you should pay special attention to the “core” relationships that center your network. As Jim Rohn said, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. While that is more insight than scientific fact, you want to make sure that you are making a conscious choice with whom you spend your time. A good rule of thumb is to have the following in your core network:
- 1 to 2 “mentors” or people senior to you
- 2 to 3 peers
- 1 to 2 relationships where you are the mentor
You should look at these relationships regularly, validate that you’ve chosen the right people and make sure you are contributing to their goals. This is particularly true with your mentors. While they presumably have much to offer, you should make sure that you are contributing as well, even if it is simply with your enthusiasm and responsiveness.
Building Your Network
Once you are confident that you have a strong core network, you can turn your attention to your other relationships. Your network is built every time you interact with other people. In my experience, the only difference between “networking” relationships and relationships in general is how you think about them. In a perfect world, they would be the same, but given the limited time we are all given, we need to be strategic in where we give extra focus.
Tending Your Network
Like a garden, you need to tend your network over time, giving attention where it is needed, planting new seeds, pulling out weeds and otherwise make sure it is healthy. To get an objective view of your relationships, you can rank each of the following on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always):
- I understand this person’s goals and needs
- I have access to information from this person
- I share information with this person
- I am comfortable asking for resources from this person
- I trust this person
- I frankly discuss concerns or problems with this person
- I can influence this person
- I am open to this person’s influence
Wherever you have a low score with someone, think about ways that you can strengthen the relationship. And then, most importantly, go and do it.
Network Mapping – Using a network to figure out how to get something done
If you have invested your time wisely and have helped others achieve their goals, you will have a strong network in place. From there, you can accomplish great things as you can tap not only your own network, but your network’s network and so on.
A network map can take many forms, but is generally a diagram of an organization or group, with lines connecting the various relationships, with thicker lines representing stronger relationships. You can do this virtually in your head, or put it on paper.
Once you have a network map, the process to follow is quite basic:
- Figure out what you want (the more specific the better)
- Figure out who the decision makers and influencers are
- Look at your network map
- Figure out the best path to take to get to those people
In the case of the example below (which would normally have real names in the boxes), while you don’t have a direct relationship with the decision maker, you do have two paths to take. Your mentor relationship looks like a better option, but there is no reason you can’t try both.
Selling Your Ideas and Judging Buy-in
Once you have identified how to get to the influencers and decision makers, it is important to understand their level of support. Ironically, sometimes the easiest answer is a simple “no” that they don’t support your idea. That tells you that you either need to change the idea or find another avenue to get it done.
“Yes” on the other hand, is an answer that can mean many different levels of support. Often it’s not clear what they really mean and you have to make your own assessment. Here’s a short list of possible meanings of “yes” (from low to high commitment).
- I won’t sabotage it
- I’m neutral
- It’s okay
- I’ll give you advice
- I’ll actively support it
- I’ll supply resources
- I’ll work with you
- I’ll do it!
In short, the more resources that they are willing to invest in the idea, the more support you have. You can use this scale to brainstorm what a “successful” meeting would be with your target audience. Ideally, what do you want them to contribute?
Networking is a nuanced area and there are many different pieces of advice on how to approach it. The good news is that actively thinking about your network for a short period of time will put you ahead of 80% of people out there. Actually doing something to improve your network will put you ahead of 95%.
If it ever feels complicated or confusing, go back to the basics – the more you contribute to the network, the more you will get out of it. Focus on that, and your network will build itself.