How to network well, and not make the same mistakes I did

How to network well, and not make the same mistakes I did

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to never judge people.”

It’s almost March (already), and that means a new season – Spring, I mean – is inching closer. For people in our trade, however, there’s only one season that matters: Event Season.

Yes, it’s the time of year when we gather en masse at humongous business events – generally in a large sports hall-style arena, or a hotel lobby somewhere – to promote our wares, see what the competition is up to, and above all, meet lots of people.

We Network.

Networking, making contacts and striking up new relationships is the grease that keeps the wheels of business in motion. Without that human element, the whole thing is just a bit, well, rubbish. Exhibit A: Covid times. As such, your people skills – the way you communicate, your use of genuine active listening, and your overall manner – are vital. If you’re naturally gregarious, or good with people, then great. If not, then you might have to work on your gregarious impression.

Anyway, to help you get through “Networkaggedon” here’s a few pointers to help you make the right impression; achieve the results you’re after, and – you know – be a good human being.

Be that social saviour
Have you ever been at a networking event where you’ve stood, drink in hand, on your own, bereft of friends and devoid of any form of human contact? It’s horrifically awkward and frankly, hard to live through.

Then, suddenly, Lo’ and behold! A kind-hearted person emerges from the crowd, possibly bathed in light and accompanied by ethereal music. As your eyes adjust to the light, they move towards you, hand extended in friendship, and say, “Hello.”

Instantly, this person – this Guardian Angel – becomes your saviour. God bless them, they’ve plugged you into the social circuit. If it weren’t for the HR (and possibly theological) implications, you could kiss them. Right there and then.
But here’s my question: Why are you not that person?

One of the most valuable things I’ve done in my career – without ever intentionally thinking about it – was to build a real network of real people. Not just thousands of random, empty LinkedIn connections for vanity purposes but real relationships.

I’ve lost count of the number of times in the last decade when people have asked, “Hey, do you know someone who can help me…?”

Ninety percent of the time I DO know someone. If not, I can usually connect people with someone who will know. As my team jokes, “Ask Raman. He probably went to school with someone who can help you!”

Never judge people on sight
Let’s be honest. You’ve probably met or been introduced to someone and thought, “This person is of no value to me. Why am I having this conversation and wasting my time?” It’s a harsh but true reality for all of us, especially when we’re busy or trying to achieve something.

The danger of this attitude is it can often stifle great contacts, and blow opportunities. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to never judge people.

Many years ago, a client agreed to meet me for a drink after work. This was exciting as it was a chance to build a relationship. When I turned up to the bar, he’d brought a colleague who was from a totally different part of the business – operations. In my naivety, I was thinking, “Oh, maaaannn. This guy’s going to be a complete obstacle.” See, I wanted to get to know this really promising client and lay on the charm a bit. I couldn’t see that happening with this chump of a gooseberry clogging the place up and getting in the way.

And what happened? We all had a great night and got on very, very well indeed. I’d let my cold, reptilian judgement go, and just embraced the situation.

As a consequence, two interesting things happened:
The first thing was this client ended up growing with extreme rapidity. Mr Gooseberry was, in fact, the client’s oldest and closest confidant – their Consiglieri, if you will. If he said I was a good guy (a wiseguy, a Goodfella) then that was it. The gateway to more business had opened. It was a covert test, and one that I had passed.

The second thing that amazed me was that a few months later Mr. Gooseberry introduced me to a friend of his who ran a different growing company. The strength of that referral got us to the front of the line for a major marketing services contract – which we then won!

He’d greased the wheel.

It was a real lesson to me about not judging books by their cover and not dismissing people.

Embrace the fabulousness of serendipity
Whenever the chance arises, embrace the fabulousness of serendipity.

Keep your eyes, ears and mind open when you’re out and about, rather than being glued to your smartphone. Every conversation you have is a learning opportunity, if you approach it with the right mindset.

Here’s an example of that…
Before I moved to the US, I made several trips to the East Coast to understand the market and simply meet new people. On one of these missions, I was supposed to attend a popular networking event called ‘Venture Café Thursday Gathering’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It was the back end of an exhausting week, and I really couldn’t be bothered. That’s when I gave myself a bit of a pep talk, “Come on, Raman,” I said. “You might never get a chance like this again. Put your phone away and let’s tap into that reserve energy. Look! They’ve got free beer.”

Running on fumes and motivated by the sweet amber, I met several new folks at the event. Nothing earth-shattering but just nice, interesting people and deeper insight on the region.

Fast-forward eighteen months, and I’d moved to Boston, Massachusetts. Once again, I attended Venture Café on a Thursday evening. Free pint in hand, I got chatting to another British guy, and we both sensed a strange familiarity. Sure enough, we’d met in the same venue eighteen months earlier.

Intrigued by my move to Boston, Michael and I had a great chat. The conversation evolved when I explained my wife, Selena (a medic/physician) was exploring career options in Boston. It turned out that Michael’s wife was also a European medic who was now working for a local biotechnology company. He offered to speak to his wife to see if she would chat to Selena and offer some advice. Long story short, Michael’s wife ended up hiring Selena within three months.

Insane, right?

That’s an outcome that would never have happened if I’d succumbed to exhaustion and taken the easy option at that original event.

The “New Person” checklist
Along with being open to new connections, you also need to be intentional and deliberate in maintaining them. You should prioritise staying in touch and being thoughtful about the conversations you have with people. If this is an area you struggle with, I’ve devised a five-step checklist for every new person I meet and want to stay in touch with:

  1. Capture any notes about the person (personal and professional) in a digital note keeper like Evernote. Do this immediately after you meet them to ensure you don’t lose any of the nuanced, special details.
  2. Connect on LinkedIn with a personalised message. Never ever attempt to sell.
  3. Send a “nice to meet you” type email often with a mention of something you’ve learned about them or an item you said you’d share like an article, contact, restaurant recommendation, etc. Again, this is where your after-the-moment notes are crucial. After a five-day conference meeting hundreds of people and possibly having a few drinks along the way, it’s hard to remember all the tiny, but important details.
  4. For some, I will also send a personalised video with links to additional resources and just to reinforce my voice and face (helps them recall who I am).
  5. Schedule any follow-up actions, meetings, and just be thoughtful. Depending on the nature of the contact, I’ll be proactive about a “keep-in-touch” strategy with some and will add it to my calendar.

You can take all of this to the next level and add everyone to a spreadsheet, a fancy customer relationship management system, and/or scheduling follow-ups.

Just don’t annoy people.

Build relationships by being helpful and generous. Assuming they connect on LinkedIn, the nature of the content you typically post and share will begin to layer upon the initial impression you left. So again, make sure it’s purposeful, relevant, and consistent in style. Make it about helping them, rather than you.

This is what builds rapport, respect, and reputation.

Clumsy Bonsai Tree analogy
For many of us who work in B2B with long sales cycles, the whole process is applicable to gardening, or tending to a particularly delicate bonsai tree that’ll die at the slightest hint of neglect. It all takes work, it all takes dedication, and it all takes patience. And maybe some water… You have to keep hydrated.
The point is: The value of these connections only blossoms after years of nurturing and purposeful upkeep and maintenance. And then they bear fruit.

Tiny business fruit.

Good day to you.