Years ago, when I was working at an advertising agency in London, I was asked to help someone out. He was down on his luck and my husband thought, as we worked in the same industry, I could help. (I should mention that my husband was a Freemason and helping other Freemasons who were down on their luck is what they do, among other things.) I was reluctant, but decided to look at his portfolio. It wasn’t great, in fact it wasn’t even good, but by now I was feeling sorry for him and thought he deserved a chance. I briefed him on a project and waited. He came back remarkably quickly but what he presented to me was beyond poor; he couldn’t cut it. He’d wasted my time, I’d wasted his. I was no further forward thanks to going against my natural instinct and dipping my toes into the murky waters of the old boys’ network. For some time to come it was impossible for me to disassociate networking with nepotism, using mates and generally subjugating quality for mutual backscratching. Was I guilty of double standards? A tetchy purist? Haven’t we all tried to gain benefit for ourselves, family and friends through our contacts? Of course the answer is yes. But my reputation would have been adversely affected if I’d accepted his work, and for me, like the majority of businesses, your good reputation is everything. It takes years to build and only seconds to destroy, as Gerald Ratner knows only too well.
When I moved to Essex and started working in a small consultancy I became aware very quickly that networking is what businessmen and women do as effortlessly as charging their mobile phones. And the opportunities to get involved are endless. There are breakfasts, lunches, after work events, speed networking, mums’ networking; Rotarians run them, so do the Institute of directors and the Chambers; enterprising business owners set up regular events of their own; magazines have been created off the back of them, venues make money out of hosting them. They’re not always called ‘networking’, but that’s what they are and there’s something going on every day of the working week, which is replicated all over the country. This is a big business where the turnover is likeminded people, all wanting to improve their chances of success, and the profit is knowledge; knowledge about people, opportunities, issues, skills gaps, the marketplace, anything and everything.
With my only experience of networking a negative one, I initially gave it a very wide berth. However, through my work I was always involved in hosting, running and attending client events and, whether I liked it or not, I was networking like a trouper. What was it about networking that was so good, when my one experience had been so bad? By meeting business owners and other professionals who weren’t working in my field I was broadening my local horizons, but more importantly, like a fine wine, I was laying down relationships for future benefit.
Leigh Hemmings, Creative Director of Stone Productions, is a networking devotee: “People do business with people, not companies, so it’s important that you get to know people and they get to know you. If you didn’t have networking how would you do that?” In a way networking, if you do it regularly enough, helps you make decisions based on insight because you’ve been able to probe more deeply under the skin of a fellow networker. This is probably one of the best ways of finding out who you’d feel comfortable working with and who you should avoid like a bout of Norovirus.
But networking is a social exercise and, for some, being sociable in a room full of strangers is similar to death by a thousand cuts. There’s no doubt that the more you do, the easier it gets, but it helps if someone can show you the ropes at the outset. Mark Howell, Operations Director of Capel Court and, like Leigh Hemmings, no stranger to networking, believes that’s a problem easily solved: “I’ve been doing this for six years but at the beginning you can feel quite isolated. I used to be that person standing on the sidelines, gripping my coffee cup and hoping someone would come over to me. A mentoring scheme for new networkers would help make their experience less daunting and more positive.” Whether operated informally or formally by the companies attending or by the host, a scheme like this would not just reduce the fear factor but could also stop bad habits.
The biggest, baddest habit of them all is feeling the need to overtly sell. You can work the room, hand out as many business cards as humanly possible and talk 19 to the dozen about you and your company and you will have learned nothing at the end of it all. But others will have learned that you’re pushy and interested in number one, not them. You might as well just leave a flyer under the wipers of their windscreens for all the good it will do you in developing any form of trust, let alone a business relationship. Most businessmen and women already know that the best way to sell is to listen, so we should all be trying harder to form the listening habit while networking. Before you start listening you need to join one of the groups, but what do you do if they’re all locked in conversation? Take a tip from Damian Culhane, Director of Perceptions Coaching, who says the secret is to just look at the feet: “The feet are farthest away from the brain and basically speak the truth about how a person feels about those around them. If you see two people whose feet are pointing towards each other, don’t join the group; look out for someone with one of their feet turned out, they’re either looking for an exit or would welcome new company.” Body language should never be underestimated, especially when the time period is concentrated; those unspoken cues can make the difference between getting a relationship onto the right footing (doh!) and blowing it altogether.
With the raft of networking opportunities open to all of us, it pays to be choosy, as Louise Dyer, Director of Dart Design, has learned: “You need time to network and breakfast meetings are great because they don’t interfere with your working day. My children are very young though, which means I have to be selective about which ones I attend, but I have won business as a result.”
Winning business and getting referrals all make the time spent networking worth it, but you need to use your time wisely. Not all networking groups will attract the industries important to you, or the right calibre of personnel and not all networking groups are good. Then again, if you want to be recognised nationally or internationally, you need to be networking further afield. The institute of Directors would be helpful here, as would the Essex Chambers of Commerce. For example, the Essex Chambers is affiliated to 52 other Chambers through the British Chambers of Commerce, and can let you have information on relevant events up and down the country. They also have strong international trade links with the Council of British Chambers of Commerce In Europe, where you can gain access to international trade events in member countries as well as support on exporting to them.
Over the past few years I’ve gone from stone cold detractor to lukewarm “I know I’ve got to do this but…”. Now I’ve reached the stage where I find the right kind of networking events (usually based on the calibre of the speaker) incredibly useful to me. I have made excellent contacts, some of whom have become dear friends, and I’m still learning. As the founder of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, notably said, “when you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot” and I’m proud to be green. And I don’t just look at the feet when I’m networking either.