March 1, 2008

Are You Networking or Burning Bridges?

Research shows that it is far more effective — in both the short and long terms — to move beyond one-size-fits-all networking formulas and develop enduring relationship-building practices.

For many people, trying to network can be a nightmare. Ever get turned off by "power networkers" who spend 30 seconds with each target, jam a business card into a reluctant hand, then hurry away to “work the room?” On the other hand, are you perhaps too shy or too stubborn to seek help that would allow you to connect more effectively with others?

Chances are you have either encountered such pushy or reclusive individuals or are one yourself. The fact is, most people could be much more effective in improving their professional connections, and the answer is not found in adopting an artificial persona or speed-chatting one’s way through a transparent agenda.

Our research shows that it is far more effective—in both the short and long terms—to move beyond one-size-fits-all networking formulas and develop enduring relationship-building practices. You should not just be making more contacts; rather, you should be building Invisible Bridges™, a metaphor for developing relationships and also the title of a book I co-wrote with John Ullmen, Ph.D.

The process of piling up business cards is short-term and transactional, whereas the most effective networking is long-term and relationship-driven. Because relationships drive effectiveness in many facets of professional life— career, leadership, teamwork, and sales (just to name a few), the bridge building approach provides valuable guidance for moving beyond networking to stronger, trust-based, enduring relationships that are far more likely to yield meaningful results.

For example, when you are trying to build a relationship with someone in your professional network for job-search purposes, it is critical that you use one of foundations of relationship building: Establishing Authentic Rapport. To that end, consider the following behaviors and actions: Balance emphasizing the result you seek with the building of the relationship. Try to connect personally, not just professionally. Identify something you have in common—a person, graduate school, or a city. Then, challenge yourself even more by continuing to spend time dialoguing on these personal interests. This can set the stage for ongoing authentic dialogue and lend itself well to building real rapport.

  • Have a clear, concise and confident positioning statement at the ready. This is your 30-to-90 second unsalesmanlike “elevator pitch” which is the answer to “What do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself.”
  • Make requests which are clear and easy to say “yes” to (e.g. ask for fifteen minutes of someone’s time rather than an hour). Remember, there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.
  • Be upbeat, positive, and appreciative of any help.
  • Be other-focused. Remember, most people are more comfortable talking about themselves and their own interests. Indulge them.
  • Link the chain: pick up on the clues the person leaves in any given phrase, and follow up with a question asking her/her to elaborate by using open-ended questions (not yes or no questions) which foster continued conversation.
  • Choose a productive perspective: Monitor your internal dialogue and reorient from “I’m uncomfortable and this is something I’m forcing myself to do” into “Here’s an opportunity to connect with someone who might be interesting and helpful.”
  • Always give the other person time to speak and always remember to LISTEN.
Effective networking is all about building strong, enduring relationships, not just collecting stacks of business cards. Use these tips at the next networking event you attend to connect on a deeper level with the professionals you meet.

Melissa Karz, MBA, and her partner John Ullmen, PhD, have been training and coaching for many years at numerous leading companies and universities, and researching the best practices of professionals who have the strongest relationship networks. They have used their research to help individuals and organizations to increase productive results by achieving professional relationship effectiveness. To learn more about relationship-building essentials, pick up their book Invisible Bridges: Building Professional Relationships for Results, which teaches the lessons of how to build strong relationships in professional life.

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