Is it time to start thinking differently about networking?
A week before Britain went into lockdown, three friends met for a quiet drink in a near-empty London bar.
One was an NHS doctor, the other two engineers, and as they drank they discussed the national shortage of ventilators to treat Covid-19 patients.
Then they had an idea. One of the group called a contact in the Mercedes Formula One team for advice on creating a new type of machine that could help supply air to patients. Mercedes responded by pledging their ‘full might’ and within a week, a prototype of the so-called CPap device had been built.
The Government has since ordered more than 10,000 of the machines and they have been hailed as a ‘game-changer’ that have saved many lives.
We have all seen how the coronavirus pandemic has brought organisations unprecedented challenges, but we have also seen how they have been overcome by collaborative working. In the case of the CPap machines, it all started with one call to the right contact. Just one example demonstrating the powers of connection, the power of leveraging your network.
To some, networking maybe a little distasteful right now – a grubby, self-serving business? But thinking clearly, rationally and strategically, it’s never been more important.
Here are my four insights that can make networking in these COVID times work for you:
Reframe Your Thinking
Good networking isn’t about being self-serving. It’s about asking how people can help you and asking how you can help other people. That’s how the most successful networks work. Operate with integrity, be generous with your experience and share your great ways of working. Include a diverse range of people in a way that makes you and your connections more successful. Take time to think about new insights, no one has the monopoly on great ideas.
Think of it as building a greater support network. Who wants to be on their own, struggling against their surroundings, particularly unknown, uncertain ones? As that famous African proverb goes, ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together’.
This isn’t the time to go it alone. Humans are social beings and research shows that ultimately our happiness is about relationships. In my view, leadership is all about relationships too. So you can call it networking, or managing stakeholders, or building relationships or accessing expertise. But it’s about working collaboratively to deliver solutions to some of the most complex issues we’ve faced in recent times.
Examine What’s Stopping You and Clear the Roadblocks
Maybe you think you shouldn’t be networking at the moment especially if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Or maybe you think that those people who are born networking 'superheroes' will be proactively contacting you and don’t need you to make contact? Maybe you think you just don’t have the time. Identify what’s stopping you and make the effort to overcome it. We all know it’s hard to change habits, but we’ve proved more than ever before that it can be done and it can be done at pace. Of course it can get sticky, but in the end, when you have cleared the way ahead, you see the advantages.
Whether you’re in work, furloughed or indeed looking for new work, you can start right away by allocating time each week just to focus on external networking, contacting different people, discussing ideas. Maybe give yourself a target of contacting new meaningful contacts each month, or having one meaningful Zoom or Teams conversation each day? For those of us drained by the constant presence on screen, try the old-fashioned way, it may even be more welcome, pick up the phone.
If it’s not something that comes naturally, then it will be even lower on the priority list at the moment. Test your networking on stronger ties - close, high trust relationships. Then onto, the weak ties, those on the periphery of your networks, people you don’t know very well. Who are they? What do they do? How can they help you and how can you help them? The pandemic has led to less formality, people are open to informal approaches. There’s never been a better time to reach out.
If you know that people are open to what you have to say, who else can you speak to that can help you or your organisation?
You may have had a reasonable network for a long time and maybe some of your contacts came about by accident. Get intentional about how you go about updating it.
Reach out to the other leaders. How can you support each other and gain different perspectives? We’re in unchartered territory. By having a broad network and access to a broad range of thinking you can gain different insights, clarity of thought and information to make better, quicker decisions
Look outside your sector for people who inspire you, those who are the best at something in a particular field. Can they help you? Can you help them?
There are networking groups that you might have considered and rejected previously. Re-examine how these could work for you now. There are networks for all ages and all stages of your career inclusive of gender, ethnicity, culture with revitalised professional institutes and trade associations; wide ranging community and special interest groups, entrepreneur and leadership networks.
Social media enables us to come together in so many new and unique ways. Yes of course, there’s LinkedIn, that’s an easy one, but how is it working for you? LinkedIn has changed, so have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to name a few, there’s access to so many more diverse groups and communities. Don’t take for granted the assumptions you had about social media are still correct or that your presence is still current.
Many networking groups have moved online due to the current restrictions and are free to use. Make the most of the time you’re not travelling. Invest some of that time in hearing new speakers, accessing thought leaders, connecting with other like minded and unlike minded contacts. Diverse connections offer diverse perspectives, we need more of that thinking as we continue to lead into more uncertain times.
Make It Personal
Be clear about what you want from your network and identify who can be useful to you. Being a ‘super connector’ is about being efficient too. There’s no point in saying yes to everyone who wants to reach out or have a virtual coffee with you. Look at you as an individual and your organisation and see how it’s going to work for you at this time.
Let's not assume that people fall into simple categories - personal or business, it limits thinking and diminishes the value of the network. Multiple ties make for stronger connections. We’re humans, people buy from people, business is also personal and relationships don’t change significantly depending on the setting.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s well known relationship started with them playing bridge. Later they learned about technology and finance from each other. But the insight was far more fundamental, impacting them personally and then professionally as well as benefiting society as a whole with their philanthropy.
Work out who your trusted advisors are, who challenges you and who thinks differently? Be inclusive and don’t live in a bubble of likeness and sameness. Bring best practice into your business and gain the benefits of having a diverse network – traditional organisations learning from start-ups/scale-ups and vice versa.
Find the mentor or coach who is going to help you to grow and develop an extensive network. They make your journey quicker and easier. Internally and externally. As an Executive Coach I’m often a change agent for my clients introducing them to other leaders who have similar issues or could offer great insight into a situation. It’s about enabling easier access to high quality, proven expertise.
Making the effort to build an objective, trusted and qualified network and leveraging these relationships is a key differentiator between being successful and really successful – this isn’t a one-off quick hit of “I’m doing networking’, it’s a constant work-in-progress.
In times like these, there’s never been more high profile examples where collaboration and networking have proved essential. Like with the NHS and F1, we have the ability to come together to solve difficult problems at a rapid pace. Think of it this way, greater collaboration between organisations is the end game, networking is purely the means.
These times present us both with the necessity and the opportunity for radical change – until this pivotal week in the U.S. did we ever believe we would see Adidas and Nike, collaborating together for change?
This is the time to grow and leverage an even more diverse network. Be consistent and remember it’s not all about you. It’s an on-going, life-long process, that has proven time and time again to improve your happiness, your success, your people’s success and your organisation’s effectiveness. Use it well and go further together.