The expression “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” used to be said with contempt, because it implied that unqualified people could get jobs just because they knew the right people. That was, of course, true in many cases, but getting a job is one thing—keeping it is something else. Unless you are a world class con artist, you need to have or develop a certain amount of expertise to keep a decent job.
But there’s no shame in using “who you know” to help you get what you want in life. Today, we recognize this and we call it networking.
Networking isn’t new. It has been around probably as long as business, but only in the past couple of decades have we actually recognized it as a business discipline and even begun teaching it to students. Let’s begin by dispelling some myths about networking.
1. A network is not something you have after a certain age. As soon as you start school, you have a network. Of course, you don’t think of it that way, but you begin to know a certain number of other people who are your own age and have other social commonalities with you. Many of us have lifelong friendships that begun in grade school.
2. Networking is not just for managers and executives. The power of networking can help anyone, at any level in any organization at any time—and sometimes when it is least expected.
3. Networking is not something you do only when you are looking for a job. Certainly, this is one time when it can clearly illustrate its value, but it can also help you: find services when you need them (I’d rather have a doctor referred to me by a friend than find one in the Yellow Pages); get information (the Internet is marvelous for researching your vacation destination, but there’s no substitute for someone who has been there telling you about that little restaurant tucked away where the tourists never go); and spread the word (My advice to anyone about to start a new business is to write down the names of everyone they know and publicize their new venture to everyone in that network).
Do you have a business card? If not, I recommend you get one, even if you have to have it printed up yourself at your own expense. In that case, it won’t have your company’s name or logo, but you can have your own name, address, phone number, and your personal e-mail address. In the early part of the 20th Century, ladies had calling cards just like this—why not carry on this perfectly sensible and practical tradition? A business card is an essential networking tool, so I recommend you get one whatever way you can.
Once you have it, carry a supply with you everywhere. Make sure you have some in every purse, wallet, briefcase, duffle bag or whatever you carry. Put some in your coat pockets. Do you get the idea? Take the advice of that old American Express ad: don’t leave home without it! I can’t believe the number of people I meet at conferences and other great networking events who don’t have cards, have forgotten to bring them, didn’t get them back from the printers yet or, my favorite, left them in their car in the parking lot. You need a card to look like the professional you are.
It’s even more important that you get other people’s cards. When you meet new people, write a brief note on the back of their cards so that you will remember who they are. As soon as you get back to your desk, drop them a note or a card, simply saying how much you enjoyed meeting them and hope you will meet again.
If you haven’t thought much about networking before and would like to start using this invaluable tool in all areas of your life, begin by making a list of everyone you know. Yes, it is a substantial job, because you know many more people than you realize, but I suggest you set aside some time to do this over a period of a week. You can do it in the evenings for an hour or so after dinner, or in the morning before you begin your day.
Start with your family. Your immediate family members will, of course, be obvious, but don’t forget all those in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews. Even if they live somewhere else, put them down—you’d be amazed how useful it can be sometimes to know someone in another country or another city. Don’t ignore the younger members either, because a teenager could have just the information you need in a given situation.
Now add your friends and acquaintances: close friends with whom you share your joys and sorrows; those who are less intimate but friends nonetheless; people you socialize with at work or school.
There are other areas of your life that bring you into contact with people. Do you have children in school? Then they have teachers you may know, friends whose parents you also know. Do you belong to a religious organization? A hobby group? Are you taking any classes? Do you carpool?
I hope you are beginning to get the message that there are networking opportunities, and potential strands for your network, everywhere you look. Take the time to do this thoroughly.
Now that you have the names down, divide them into categories: family, friends, business acquaintances, former coworkers, etc. This is useful when you are looking for the right person for any specific purpose.
You need to have some method of keeping track of your network. In his excellent book on networking, Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty, author Harvey Mackay says he gave each of his children a Rolodex when they left high school, and explained to them the value of building and maintaining a lifelong network. Today, we have more sophisticated tools for this purpose, although a simple Rolodex is a good start.
Create a simple database, preferably on your own computer at home. If you must use your work computer, make it a separate database you can take away with you if you move, because this is YOUR network. It’s your property and it must be portable.
As you enter all the names and contact information, also make notes of who the people are, how you met, any other information you have about them. You want to be able to search your database by subject, so key words in the Notes section are essential. Every time you meet someone new, add that person to the database with as much information as you have.
Nurturing your network
But a network is not the same thing as a database. A network is a dynamic, living organism that grows and changes over the years. Like a garden, it needs to be tended and nurtured, or it will not perform for you when you need it. So how do you do that?
Well, you need to keep in touch with people. Some, of course, you speak with regularly just in the course of your daily life. But there are others that require more of an effort, and that effort is well worthwhile. Set up a schedule for making contact with people over the course of a year and use your follow-up system to remind you.
You will probably want to contact people in a number of different ways. A phone call is the most personal contact, and for me the most satisfying. Long distance is cheaper now than ever, and a half hour call to Scotland lets me enjoy a long “blether” with family members or old friends without spending a fortune. This is also a great use for e-mail. Whether it’s a short note to a friend or to someone you haven’t contacted for years, it can be a pleasant reminder of you. I like to send handwritten notes and postcards, because in this electronic age the low tech communication vehicle often stands out.
It’s a two-way street
Always be ready to help others in your network, as well as accepting help from them. I love the movie title Pay It Forward because it describes beautifully how networking is supposed to work at its best. Someone helps you, and instead of paying it back you pay it forward by helping someone else in turn. If you work at being a valuable member of other people’s networks, it will be easier to find help of any kind when you need it.
Networking is a way of life. Learn to sow and grow your own network effectively, following the guidelines I’ve given you here, and it will give you support, friendship and pleasure throughout your life.
Through her speaking, training and writing, Helen Wilkie helps people use practical communication skills for success. For more on networking, go tohttp://www.mhwcom.com/pages/valuefromnetworking.html While you are at the site, sign up for “Communi-keys” for free monthly tips and techniques on communication.