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Stop Networking – Start Connecting. 6 Tips for developing a richer networking experience

This post originally appeared as a guest column on The Executive Roundtable Blog. Click here for the original posting

We all know that networking is an important way to meet people who could help you; those who might one day refer business to you, or open the door to a new opportunity. That’s certainly true, but that’s really only part of the picture. Networking is also about connecting, sharing, learning and finding ways to develop meaningful relationships with others. A network can be a source of new work but it can also be a source of information, ideas and reality-checking feedback. Your network contacts can deliver business opportunities and introduce you to people you may not otherwise meet, but only if you remember to feed it from time to time with your own ideas and support. As much as your network can help you, you are also a contributor and participant in the growth of others.

Here are 6 tips for developing a more productive network. A network that will provide ideas, feedback, business opportunities and maybe the talent pool for your future dream role.

1 – It begins with your approach What are you thinking as you approach new people for the first time? If you approach each new relationship with a view to finding out how someone might be able to help you, you’re doing it all wrong. Your first task when you meet people is to find out as much as you can about them and areas of common interest. Then – your role is to think about how YOU might be able to help THEM! Learn what they need to progress, and how you might be able to help. You will ask different questions and learn far more about how someone might potentially help you if you understand more about them. The time will come later to figure out if they can assist you with anything.

2 – Recalibrate your filter system Don’t build your network exclusively at a senior level. That’s a rookie mistake and will lead you to missing opportunities to interact with some great people. Not to mention, it just makes you come off as a jerk when you dismiss junior people as less valuable. Look for connections with people who interest you and who have different life perspectives to offer. I am more interested in connecting with people who’s thinking complements and even challenges mine, than their current job title. They may be CEOs and VPs already, or perhaps they are really smart high school graduates who are looking at the world around them with an inquisitive nature. Either way, you need them all.

3 – Networking opportunities are all around us There are so many places where you can find new connections for your network. Don’t just consider the typical business networking ‘events’ as the only place to find great new contacts. Consider speakers at the conference you attend, candidates you have interviewed, people you have interviewed with, people who reach out to you for help, clients you meet, others who work with your clients, professors, other students, mentors, entrepreneurs, and the list goes on. When you meet someone interesting – ask them to connect with you on LinkedIn and make sure you continue your conversations offline. From time to time check back through all of your connections and invite them to ‘catch-up’. You never know when doing so might lead to a fascinating new opportunity for one of you.

4 – Your network as a source of inspiration Your network should be a living, breathing assortment of interesting and intelligent people who can inspire you to be your best in everything you do. When you are working on a new project, or researching a new strategy, your network may provide some interesting perspectives. Consider members of your network to be your personal board of advisors. Identify people in your network whose opinions you trust to help you shape your thinking. Don’t be afraid to use members of your network as a sounding board or as a reality check for your ideas.

5 – Your network as a hidden talent pool Just like the fact that there is a hidden job market and the best opportunities come to you through your network, so can the best candidates! Your job as a leader is not only to ensure the strategic health of your team and your business but also to actively identify and recruit talent wherever you may find it. Keep track of others’ careers as they grow. When you interview a start candidate who wasn’t the right fit for your vacancy, stay in touch with them, and see how you can help them land a suitable role. Even if you don’t have a position for them, you may know someone who does. When you have a position that requires the best talent you can find, you’ll be able to tap your junior network members for their potential knowledge of others at a similar career level, who may be interested. And the good karma and satisfaction that comes from being able to help talented individuals reach their potential will fulfill your inner leader-soul.

6 – Your role in feeding your network Networks should be dynamic, fluid and multi-directional. How many of your network members know each other already? Which of them might benefit from meeting each other? How can you facilitate introductions between your network contacts? Who might be able to work together or do business together? Who might just get a kick out of meeting each other? You may be the hub but you don’t need to keep your network contacts as spokes. They can get huge value from being able to cross-fertilize ideas and support across the entire network. When I meet someone new whom I would like to help, I often invite him or her to look through my network connections on LinkedIn and ask that I introduce them to anyone else they would like to meet.

This flow of connections, sharing, engaging and learning from each other is what I mean when I say stop networking and start connecting. Try it – You might start thinking of networking not as a chore but as essential to your leadership identity as breathing.  I know I do.

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