Early on in my career, I remember being advised to start networking to help me unlock new opportunities. It’s a piece of advice I’m glad I received, and I’ve learnt over the years to appreciate the value of being able to speak and connect with a variety of people.
Mingling with strangers doesn’t always come easily, no matter how senior you are, but the more events you attend, the easier it will become to relax into a situation. More importantly, the art of relationship-building is certainly something that can be improved with practice.
1. Take time to read the situation
One of the most important things to understand is that there is no right way to approach networking – people interact in different ways. A great starting point is to try and interpret how the person you’re talking to is behaving.
Humans subconsciously imitate the gestures, speech pattern and attitude of those we are near to. In a networking environment, by mirroring someone’s energy or stance, you may find yourself feeling more comfortable with those around you. In a one-to-one scenario, this also makes it easier to break the ice without the other person even realising, which can result in a more positive, relaxed conversation.
2. Don't be afraid to ask questions
Have you ever heard people say ‘the quietest people are often the most powerful’? Well I take a slightly different perspective on this, as I’ve often found that the smartest people in the room are the ones asking questions. They are truly engaging with their peers, and their questions are creating opportunities to further a discussion or develop new ways of working around a particular issue.
In a room full of people, it can be hard to devote yourself fully and stay ‘switched on’ to one conversation, but some of the most valuable strategic insights I have learnt were gained from asking questions that others didn’t think to ask.
3. Follow up with new contacts - but make sure you've got something useful to say
It’s easy to get pulled into a conversation, but often much harder to find a natural way to close it off. Try to find something you can follow up with them about at a later date, which will give you the chance to offer your new contact something that will benefit them. You can learn a lot about a person through the art of listening and questioning, enabling you to provide value and demonstrate your knowledge, expertise and insight in your next interaction. I have been able to apply these principles to colleagues and potential clients throughout my career in order to understand their challenges and provide the solutions they were looking for.
4. Remember that internal networking is important
Without the support of my internal network of peers, I may not have taken some of the biggest steps in my career. When I was offered the role of executive of innovation at Element Six, I initially turned the position down, even though it would have made me the first female, non-PhD executive in the history of the company.
Despite knowing I had the ability to do the job, at that stage in my career I didn’t feel that I had earned enough respect from the wider team to lead effectively. However, my peers saw capabilities in me that I hadn’t recognised in myself. Through networking with colleagues who I didn’t work directly with, I was able to gain strategic insights into processes that bettered the outcomes of my own team, as well as showing them the way I worked and subsequently, the type of leader I would be.
5. Don’t underestimate the power of small interactions
Even the simplest encounters can help to build and develop relationships with people, no matter how insignificant those encounters may seem. It’s important to take a step back and get a real understanding of what people want from you and the current situation.
Take every interaction on its own merit and try to respond in a way that will help the relationship grow. You are only as strong as the team that work for you. Different people flourish under different management styles and so should be treated individually.
Siobhán Duffy is executive director, sales and business development, Element Six.
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