I was a sole practitioner for three years without a marketing department or corporate brand to generate incoming calls. Consequently I had to find cost-effective ways to be seen and heard in the consulting market. Networking was an obvious tactic, so I threw myself into it. Here is what I learned:
The business environment provides a multitude of opportunities to network. Professional associations, clubs of various types, universities, recruitment firms and consultancies are all vying for your attention. I was even found by the local franchise of a global networking group. The point is that you can be selective, and it makes sense to choose what you think you might enjoy. You will be a more enthusiastic participant and more likely to return to an environment in which you have fun. Choose a group you like and/or a topic of interest. Don’t just focus on the business cards you might collect.
2. Pay it forward
I’ve also learned that relationships are better built before you need them. This lesson came about one morning when I was contacted by someone who was running a major conference. His key note speaker had taken ill, and he wanted to know if I would step in that afternoon. This was a bit scary, but I had a suitable topic in hand so I accepted. That individual came to be one of my chief sources of referral business. Now that I know this, I make a point of seeking people out without having a specific need or agenda.
3. Listen hard
I often tell people that I became a consultant because it was the only job I could find for which you’re paid to be curious. I love finding out how others think and feel and work. I especially love exploring groups and their interactions. Work culture stands out by a mile when you’re on the outside looking in! This curiosity and the listening skills that go with it are just what you need to network sustainably.
4. Have a point of view
Listening hard is great, but trusting someone with your point of view is also important. I do it all the time now, because I’m prepared to be wrong. Otherwise, the risk is that I carry the wrong assumption along with me longer than necessary. And, of course, sometimes my view can be helpful to prompt someone else to think more deeply on a topic.