“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” So goes the old adage, and it’s true that in business, personal relationships usually count for more than specialist knowledge. But I don’t think the key to success lies simply in knowing the right people – in the traditional sense of “the people who matter”.
Just think for a moment of all the high fliers who have crashed to earth in the great crisis of capitalism of the past four years or so. They had the right connections – or so they thought. They were part of the establishment. Their trouble was that they had become isolated from the rest of us.
And here’s the challenge for networkers today. It’s about making connections, yes, but it’s also about constantly testing yourself against other people, bouncing ideas around, keeping yourself honest, in the broadest sense.
What is networking and why do we do it? In a business context, we mean social interaction in the pursuit of competitive advantage. It’s hardly new. In Asian societies, the tradition has always been that if you want to do business with someone, you establish a social connection first, often with an exchange of gifts.
It was the Anglo-Saxons, for the most part, who thought they could “get down to business” without any such niceties. And it was the Anglo-Saxons who belatedly realised the importance of networking in the latter half of the last century.
Globalisation has blurred those traditional cultural differences, and now we all network for all we’re worth. But the remarkable thing about today’s society is that for all our massively enhanced ability to connect, whether via Twitter, Facebook, video-conferencing or whatever, it’s easy to end up feeling quite lonely.
Once you get to a certain level, you can choose who you speak to, screen out the rest, and operate to a great extent by virtual means. Your networking becomes so selective that it ceases to work as it should.
The answer, I believe, is that you have to make an extra effort to stay in touch. Get out and see the world, by all means. Use every electronic medium available. Make all the connections you can. But don’t forget to talk to your own people as well. And people from other walks of life. They have good ideas and can help you make good connections. Above all, they provide the best reality check there is.
If you want to see what happens without that reality check, just look at banking, which always used to be based, at some fundamental level, on a personal relationship.
Whoever you were, wherever you were operating, you could not borrow more than a certain sum of money without at some point looking someone in the eye and shaking their hand. There was – and still is – reassurance for both parties in that physical interaction.
Nowadays, an enormous number of financial transactions can happen without any human element at all. So much the better in many respects – everyday banking is easier, quicker and more efficient. But it’s clearly far from infallible.
I don’t think it’s simplistic to say that the depersonalisation of everyday banking was one of the underlying reasons why bankers found themselves looking for ever more ingenious ways of making money, without any connection to the everyday concerns of ordinary people.
Too many began to think about their “customer base” with no mental image of flesh-and-blood customers – whom they hardly ever saw, after all. They thought in abstractions, about shareholder value, return on investment, productivity, efficiency and benchmarking. Then, when times got hard, they became obsessed with the bottom line. They forgot about people.
The right sort of networking always brings you back to people. It makes sure you talk things through, find out what your customers want, what your own staff can do, what people enjoy, what brings the best out of them.
So is there a recipe for successful networking? I reckon there are three essential steps:
1. Open all the networking avenues you can
That means getting involved in every kind of social media, so that you maximise your connections. It means travelling to explore new markets, meet potential new customers and pick the brains of local experts. It means coming home and talking to your staff, your friends and family. And it means being open to casual encounters that might arise from conferences, social events or meetings in public places. But this is only the exploratory stage, the making of connections.
2. Build relationships
How do you get the most out of a networking opportunity? The successful networker needs to be able to relax and persuade others to do the same. You can’t do that if you are too determined to sell something, or win an argument. Being extrovert is fine, but being a hustler or a bully will put people on the defensive. Respect people, listen, give them the chance to express themselves. In the end, you can’t fake it – you have to be genuinely open-minded, genuinely ready to listen and learn. Be patient, and opportunity will come your way.
3. Follow through
Giving someone your business card won’t persuade them to follow up. If you’ve identified a business opportunity, now is the moment when you need to take the initiative. Remember what they were interested in, and send them an email. Offer them something. Invite them to something. If you have any doubts, check them out.
Networking may be much more complicated than it used to be, but at heart it depends on that personal interaction and all that flows from it – courtesy, respect and ultimately, you hope, trust. But if you try to shortcut the personal element, you are asking for trouble.
Mark Dixon is founder and CEO of Regus.