Fresh out of my MBA, I joined a British advisory firm in 2013. We had a great culture at the organisation and part of it was Friday drinks with the team. At one of these Friday drinking sessions, my boss randomly asked me – “What is it that you want in life now that you have your MBA and a good job?”

The younger and relatively naive me blurted out without thinking twice, “ I want to travel.”

He calmly asked, “Well you can travel anytime in life, what is it that you really want for yourself.”

Now a little more serious I said, “I’d like to experience different cultures, know people and maybe learn a new language.”

To understand what he really wanted to know I asked him the same question, “What did you want in life after your MBA?” He calmly replied, “A meaningful and robust network.”

I was stumped and amazed at the maturity of his thoughts and clarity of his words. I immediately understood the depth of his question and his vision for life.

This conversation got etched into my mind forever. Over the years I realize the value of his words even more and understand its importance. In business as well as life, our network is indeed our net worth.

With patience to develop and nurture professional relationships being low and need for quick results being high, we’re all (or most of us) guilty of using social media for some mindless networking.

Today, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are considered leading platforms for marketing and sales prospecting and hiring. However, few realize that mostly it is people sending random connection requests In-fact it has been documented by World Economic Forum that by 2020, there will be an estimated 2.5 billion connections between people on personal and business social networks worldwide.

It’s just no surprise that now there a number of automation tools that allow you to automate adding people on LinkedIn or Twitter.

It’s very common today, to hear people talk about vanity metrics such as number of followers, number of friends, number of connections and much more, but how many of these really count? There is this false sense of social validation which emerges fuelled by the Fear of Missing out (FOMO) when you see the competitor having a bigger network and this insatiable need of staying ahead of competitors in every single space.

Sometimes mindless reach-outs do more harm than good.

So this brings one to think about the quintessential question, how many of these are meaningful networks? You would be able to get the answer easily on finger tips of one hand. Let us understand our network better, may be that would help shrinking it down to a size that would make it more meaningful and worthy.

I. UNDERSTANDING YOUR NETWORK

Often people to tend to think of their network like a list and everybody on that list is important. Get out of that mentality. In fact, your network is like an onion, it’s a layer within a layer and the core is your primary network, which needs utmost nurture and care. Here’s how I visualise networking:

Understanding-professional-networking

The Tertiary network

These are people you don’t know yet or hardly know beyond their company or role.

The Secondary Network

These are the people who you know professionally or via your primary network. People you can reach out to citing common grounds and expect a reply from them.

The primary Network

These are people who you know well or would have known really well at some point in life. These are the people who you’d like to catch up for drinks once in a while. I think it would be safe to say that your primary network is the people you can reach out to and expect a response from within hours (unless they’re backpacking in the Andes).

The Inner circle

These are the people you hang out or remain in touch with regularly. Beyond family and friends, these are the people who you love to talk to and connect with. These are people you trust and are vulnerable to. These could be colleagues, clients, people from your business network and personal friends.

The aim should be to have as many people in the first two circles. Famous anthropologist already has this cracked for you with his theory of the Dunbar Number of 150 – The Dunbar number theory suggests that humans can’t have meaningful relationships beyond 150 people and they formulate your inner circle.

It’s important to have at least 6-7 people from work in this circle. They will be your shoulder in times of need who understand your work stress and can empathize with you and at the same time offer sensible advice.

Now that you have understood the basic concept of networking and the role each individual plays in it, let’s find out how can one build a proper network.

II. THE 5 PILLARS OF NETWORKING

In the business context it’s best to have people in your primary network. It’s the most promising space for converting relationships to customers or referrers. Here’s how you can get optimal success from networking with the right kind of people in your primary network.

1. Show genuine appreciation:

In today’s world of fake and shallow relations, it is very rare but important to be genuine in both your appreciation and criticism. Appreciate a person to his face if you really care, it will motivate him to work better as well as develop a humane bond with you.

What you could do and say:

When reaching out to people talk about something recent that they’ve done. In the era of social media, it isn’t hard to find. for e.g. a recent talk they did or event they attended. Say something like “Hey, I noticed you were speaking at SaasTr last month. I watched a recording and really loved what you said about.” The person will appreciate the fact that you did your homework well and appreciated him/her for a genuine thing.

What not to say:

It may have worked earlier but when making the first contact try not to talk of totally superfluous information you may have dug out from somewhere. For instance,, seeing a picture of him skiing and writing to the person that you love skiing too. Not cool! Talk about it in conversation when you meet but definitely not in the first cold email. It shows that you are trying to be overtly friendly without a real connect.

Paolo Coelho writes in one of his books about favor banking. It’s a concept where he talks about me helping you today with the right introductions and referrals so you gain from it. So in the future, I’d be in a stronger position to reach out and ask for a favor with a higher likelihood of you agreeing to help me because I invested in the favor bank with you when you needed it.

2. Listen more than you speak:

The Golden rule that all great networkers preach is- “listen more than you speak”. It’s important that you let the person in front of you talk himself, his business or other interests. Be attentive to his thoughts and outlook and chip into the conversation only when needed. Don’t turn into a silent Sally but ensure that you are a patient listener. You’re more likely to get more information about the person and therefore be able to help the person better or know what this person can later be reached out to for when you’re in need. Incase you’re doing the listening on the phone then ensure you’re asking follow-up questions to nudge the other person into telling more.

Replace pride with curiosity – Know what your leads and prospects are genuinely passionate about. It will go a long way.

What you could do and say:

Listen attentively and observe body language. Understand silent and unspoken cues. Prompt and nudge to get more information but in a smart way. Intermittently use leading phrases like “That’s interesting! Can you tell me more about this if you don’t mind.”

What not to say:

Don’t use words or body language that signal the end of a conversation or the fact that you are getting bored. For instance, “It was wonderful to hear from you” or “Thank you for your time”. These are perceived as conversation stoppers.

3. Sprinkle in some humor

Recently I came across a rather interesting post from Jon Buchan about a mass email he sent out that got him a tremendous number of responses. He started the email with “Don’t worry you don’t know me”. humor in a subtle manner can be an ice breaker and a good conversation starter. Learn the art well.

Jon-buchan-email-copy

A screenshot of an email from the immensely talented Jon Buchan who set about a wave of using humor in content copy to differentiate in the inbox.

What you could do and say:

Understand the context well and then crack a joke. Don’t come across as insulting or snooty. If this is something you’re not sure about, it’s best to avoid it than whack an axe on your own feet! For instance, “This is so simple even cousin Tim in Iowa could understand it.”

What you shouldn’t say:

Don’t make humor very personal- it can go down the wrong way. Stay away from religious sentiments- some people are very touchy about it. It’s best to test the waters before going in full on. If the other person appreciates or knows how to make and take jokes, go ahead else don’t!

4. Humility

You might be a somebody talking to a nobody today, but you never know that the nobody might become somebody tomorrow. Be Humble both personally and professionally. The times of having boastful and bashful executives are long gone. People realize the value of being human and connecting as a person.

Intellectual humility is an invisible sword you hold in your hand to cut through the fluff around. Google’s SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock accurately sums up how it’s imperative to have intellectual humility without which you are unable to learn.

What you could do and say:

Coming across as confident yet humble is a winning impression you can make while you’re networking. Be bubbly but not bashful. Say something like “Help me get this clear because I don’t want to peck at your brains later. Or have I understood this correct that you’re suggesting we <whatever it is the other person suggested>

What you shouldn’t say:

Don’t be bashful and overconfident wanting to fake it till you’ve made it. Being rude will never work on the morale of your colleagues, friends, and employees. You should have the knack to convey your point without demeaning the other person.

5. Under-promise and over-deliver, 

Nothing puts off people more than a bashful young executive who promises to blow your mind away and then goes into hibernation or totally under-delivers. When you’re networking with people who aren’t in your inner circle, make it a habit to not offer more than you can deliver. Keep your goals realistic- it might not be very impressive but when compared to a person promising the moon and then not reaching even the fag end of the moon; you will be a star.

What you could do and say:

When you’re networking do not get carried away and over promise in a moment of enthusiasm or to impress. Pragmatically evaluate your offer and try to deliver more than promised. For instance, if Amanda asked you for an introduction to a lawyer named Frank. Reply with “I’ll try my best to get in touch with Frank. He keeps a busy schedule so it’s a bit difficult to find him.”

Now “ACTUALLY” try your best to reach out to Frank and do the needful. In a separate note also mention that if Amanda wants you can introduce her to Joe, and James also since they have the same profile as Frank. Amanda will feel valued and have gratitude for it always.

What you shouldn’t say:

Do not over-promise. If you have told your boss that you will complete an assignment by the weekend and he urges you to finish it by tomorrow, if you cannot, please have the courage to say No. Be polite but firm. Your boss will always appreciate you for your honesty than your over ambition and no delivery.

III. HOW TO NETWORK

Meaningful business networking needs practice. Two key factors to build a good network are to be genuine and humble. It is the best way to create connections on a professional as well as a personal level. For instance, if you’re sending connection requests on Facebook or LinkedIn – make sure you’re sending a note along-with and not just a blank connection request. Some important points to consider while forming or initiating a network are as follows:

1. Find strategic introductions:

It is important to find appropriate introductions to be able to make a connect with a person. For instance, if you want to get in touch with Jane Smith to pitch an amazing deal she might be interested in but do not know her. Then you’d be doing what most sales people do which is scrambling to find Jane’s email ID or phone number and send in a cold email saying, “Hey Jane, hope you’re doing well. I’m Bruce Wayne, Founder of Batcave enterprises. I was wondering if you would consider my proposal.” Now put yourself in Jane’s shoes who gets many such mails in a day. She would simply delete the mail. So it’s important to have a personal contact for such networking. Always remember, prospecting comes secondary in business, it’s always about networking first and networking right\

2. Have a purpose in your reach out:

When reaching out to a stranger, always start with introducing yourself. Be polite and humble and explain your reason of reaching out.

Here’s an interesting summary of how leaders create and use networks (Harvard Business Review)

3. Think Fast and Talk Smart:

Business networking requires you to think on your toes with little scope for secondary impressions. You have to be great at communicating and connecting with people so that they never forget you.

Sometime back I came across a great article which talked about networking comprising of two groups – The Hunters (99% of the world who’re looking to meet the famous) and the Hunted (The Famous) – The aim is to reach being hunted from the hunters.

4. Personalize:

A personal touch will go a long way in establishing an everlasting bond. For starters, when you reach out to someone, address them by their first name. It helps create a rapport that you’re not just random Rodrick knocking at the door. If you can mention a commonality it would work better. Build up on the connection slowly but with a personal touch to it.

5. Reinforce:

When you’ve established initial connect, the next step is to reinforce and strengthen the relationship. Thus, it is important to touch base with the person once in a way and write in a way that they are able to place you immediately. For instance, once I saw a CEO wear Green shoes. I made sure I complimented him for them. Weeks later I sent an email “Hey Max, hope you’re doing great and enjoying the summer. We met recently, and I am sure you’d remember me as the one who loved your Green shoes. This example might sound a little childish, but I hope you get the essence here?

I’d like to close my thoughts by saying that meaningful networking is the real worth and essence of a professional network. If you come across as a genuine person, anyone (stranger or known) will give you a patient hearing. It is important to make the right connect with the right kind of people instead of spamming all the Johns and Janes of the world. Remember that people do not pay for products, they pay for solutions and stories and they continue to do so due to relationships. So be the change you want to make and indulge only in genuine networking.