Are you always finding it’s about “who you know?” Whether starting a new business or trying to commercialize an existing product, it’s true that few things are as important as making and keeping the right contacts. Those right contacts (also known as your professional network) ideally help you get in the door faster, act as resources for valuable industry insights and often provide the required level of trust during negotiations to get those game-changing deals over the finish line. With much of my career tied to business development, my job performance relies heavily on having the right contacts and constantly enhancing my professional network.
So, how do you build and maintain your own professional network to help you access and close those all-important deals? While plenty of different networking strategies exist in every profession, for me, there are three tricks to the trade: 1) finding opportunities to give people exposure, 2) networking people with each other, and 3) developing thought leadership on a topic. Here’s how each of those tactics works:
1. Giving People Exposure
Whether I’m working with a conference, organizing a panel/small event or coordinating a dinner, I ensure my most innovative and knowledgeable industry friends have a voice. This benefits the event overall, but it also gives me a chance to build relationships with people at the cutting edge in their industry by elevating their visibility.
When I curate a panel, conference or dinner, I start building the agenda around a theme or topic I know people care about. If I’m organizing a conference, I may even create an advisory board to help develop the content and topics. We think about who is doing the most interesting things in relation to the theme based on recent news articles we’ve read or conversations we’ve had around town.
I then begin reaching out to potential speakers or attendees, starting with my most senior relationships. Once I’ve secured their participation, I focus on recruiting others who could serve as good additions, but who I also haven’t met before or know less well. By leveraging my friends who are already participating as social proof that the event is worthwhile, I’m able to build relationships with new contacts. Lastly, I fill in the agenda with other folks I want to keep in touch with, or who I think will have a lively perspective on the conversation. It’s a successful equation I’ve executed numerous times.
2. Networking People to Each Other
When you focus on specific industries (in my case, retail and digital media), people in the industry are mainly interested in meeting other people at the same level (or higher). I’ve found that most people interested in networking are usually either (a) thinking of their next job or (b) wanting to gain advice on something they are working on internally. Industry peer interaction is a great way to network or gather feedback. Thus, creating opportunities where the right industry folks can meet each other becomes a very valuable practice.
I organize happy hours and dinners to encourage this type of connection — because doesn’t everyone love food, drinks and engaging conversation? I carefully curate the guest list using the approach described above to include old and new friends and nurture the folks that RSVP’d with teaser intros of who they should meet, resulting in an excellent attendance record.
My other secret to maintaining high attendance: staying current on new opportunities, technologies and startups and offering the information to folks in my network when initially reaching out, so that I constantly lead with value. And, most importantly, I try to be helpful wherever I can and accept any invitations myself whenever I’m available. Ultimately, I try to be the contact industry friends go to when they need something.
3. Developing Thought Leadership
While I wouldn’t call myself an innovator, I generally develop a deep understanding of the industries I serve. I can identify their challenges and needs, as well as anticipate what they will see as opportunities. Although I may not offer all the answers to the latest burning questions, I often know the people who do and encourage them to share — either on panels or at a dinner with a specific topic or agenda. This presents the added benefit of giving people exposure per the first tactic discussed above.
Writing regular blog posts and contributed articles also develops your reputation for thought leadership, and I personally don’t do that nearly enough. Blogging starts a conversation. Sharing thought-provoking insights on social media and amplifying that blog content can contribute to that purpose as well.
In the end, you’ll discover many approaches to building a strong network throughout your career. I know plenty who have done it just by being the life of the party and by showing up to networking event after networking event. That’s not my style and seems much harder (and more exhausting) to execute, which is why I’ve cultivated this more formulaic approach to get the job done efficiently.
Over the years, I used this technique to build a valuable network of industry contacts, many of whom I also consider good friends. My network developed into my most powerful resource for staying current on industry issues, receiving honest feedback on ideas, and finding new opportunities.
I’m sure many of you have come up with other creative ways to build your networks — I’d love to see them here! Please share your approach and ideas in the comments section below. Happy Networking!
About the Author:
Veronika Sonsev is a Partner with Chameleon Collective and also an advisor to a number of startups. She works with B2B clients in retail and digital media to help them accelerate revenue through strategy, marketing and business development. Prior to Chameleon Collective, Veronika founded and ran inSparq (acquired by Adiant Media), a software company that worked with some of the largest retailers and brands to market their trending products in real time.
Veronika is an active advocate for women in business, and in 2009, she founded the global non-profit Women in Wireless, which now has over 12,000 members and 10 chapters around the world. Her success as an entrepreneur combined with her support for women in the digital industry has led Fast Company to include her in its League of Extraordinary Women and TechWeek to name her as one of the Top 100 digital leaders in New York.
Veronika holds a B.A. in Economics and Russian Studies from American University and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. You can find Veronika on Twitter at @vsonsev and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vsonsev.
NOTE: This article was originally written and published for the Springboard Enterprises column in Inc.: http://www.inc.com/springboard/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-conversations.html.