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Robert Myatt

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Networking without the hangups

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The dreaded conference coffee break can, for some people, present a nerve wracking period of forced conversation, uncomfortable silences and custard creams. Networking at these events can be tricky, but with clear aims and a set strategy, business psychologist Robert Myatt says you can abolish the stress and come away with some useful contacts.

Managing relationships has probably always been important to success in business, but today it’s absolutely vital.  With most organisations adopting complicated ‘matrix’ structures (i.e. you’ve got more than one boss to keep happy), and directors expecting more than just things done on time and on budget, being able to build and maintain a strong network is becoming as important as good project management.

Making friends and influencing people

Networking is a skill.  Some people are naturally good at it, they love doing it, they instantly build rapport and they seem to be able to charm the socks off people to get what they want.

For most, it is a capability which they first have to begrudgingly accept is actually quite important, then hone as they progress through their careers.  Many of Kaisen’s clients ask us to run ‘stakeholder management’ programmes to equip their leaders, even their graduates, with the capability to navigate internal and external politics.At Cranfield Business School, networking is held with such high regard that the School employs four occupational psychologists who help students to unblock fears and find their confidence in this arena.

That brings me to a very important point. For people to develop their ability to network, they have got to shed the hang ups which lead them to avoid networking at all costs, or do so with a fraction of their usual confidence.  After all, most people do not have a problem meeting new clients or colleagues, having a chat or asking people questions, so why do so many people dislike networking?

It’s because for even the most gregarious individuals, networking can pose a number of personal and ethical dilemmas.  For some it is the prospect of approaching strangers and engaging in small talk which makes their toes curl, others struggle with the boundary between personal and business friendships, and some baulk at the idea of ‘exploiting’ other people for personal gain.

For example, do any of the following feelings resonate with you?

  • Anxious about ‘making the first move’ at conferences and networking events
  • Concerned about maintaining the boundary between ‘friend’ and ‘business contact’
  • Feeling that networking is ‘sleazy’ or underhand
  • Feeling that networking is unethical e.g. you are ‘using’ people

So if you want to get better at networking, challenging the logic and evidence behind these thoughts is a good way of approaching the task with a more positive frame of mind.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to go into all the ways to challenge these ‘self-limiting beliefs’, so I’ll save that for another article. However, I will cover the single most important tactic for successful networking: having clear objectives.

A quick win

So why do people who are normally perfectly sociable in the workplace loathe the prospect of ‘working the room’?  One of the key differences is the informality of networking situations and lack of structure. It can feel like you’re there to charm people with your entertaining repartee, a prospect you might not relish. But, if you have clear aims and a plan for achieving them, you can focus your mind on getting the job done and silence those ‘inner voices’.

Let’s take a common networking task that many people avoid like the plague: developing new contacts at conferences or networking events:

Step 1: Set your aim
What do you want to get out of the event?  Being clear about what you want to achieve helps you to focus on getting your job done.  How about something like: "I’ll get five potential contacts to agree to meet with me"?

Step 2: Select your targets
At a one day conference you will typically have a maximum of two hours for networking, so you need to be focused.  Arrive at the conference early and scan the delegate list; pick out the people you’d like to meet.
Next, you need to put names to faces. Circulate around the venue, tactfully glancing at badges and make a mental note of your ‘targets’.

Step 3: Engage your target
Be bold approaching your targets, most people are very happy to talk to new people at conferences – that’s probably why they’re at the event.  So approach people at the coffee table or on the way out of a session. Keep your conversation opener simple. You are both at the same conference, so that’s an obvious place to start. Try something like: "How did you find that session?"; "How are you finding the conference?"

Step 4: The conversation
Now we’re in business. We’ve started the conversation; what do you do next?

  • Get them talking about their business: It is very easy to carry on talking about the conference or the weather or whatever, but if you want to further the relationship you need to get them to talk about their business. A subtle link to such as "so, I guess that must be a priority in your business", can work well.
  • Instant mini delivery: Once you are talking about their business, the next step is to convince the person that you are someone worth talking to further. This can be done through the ‘instant mini delivery’ which is in essence a small taste of the kind of insight or opinion they would get if they worked with you. You can do it by showing some insight into the their business issues e.g. "we’ve found that financial services businesses are often…" or "we’ve often seen companies…".  Dropping in a few relevant client names can help with your credential building.

Step 5: Getting commitment to meet
You need to get verbal commitment to meet – otherwise all your efforts are wasted.  From my experience if you get verbal commitment to meet, there’s an 80% chance they will agree to meet up when you follow-up.  If all you do is exchange business cards, this chance reduces to around 30%.

Gaining the commitment to meet can be done in a casual way e.g. "I’m often in your part of town/country, how about we meet up to talk further?".

Step 6: Move on to the next target
This means:

  • Finish the conversation: If you’ve made a commitment to meet, the conversation has reached a natural denouement, so it’s OK to just say "nice meeting you.." and move on.  Alternatively, you can throw in an excuse e.g. "I’ve got the make a call…"
  • Don’t go back: Once you have got commitment to meet, don’t spend any more time with that person. It can be very tempting once you have ‘made a friend’ to keep talking.
  • Don’t waste time with ‘non-targets’: Sounds harsh but time is not on your side and you’ve got a job to do.  Talking to ‘non-targets’ will take time, so be decisive and find a reason to politely break the conversation.

By imposing clear aims and a structure onto a networking opportunity, you can change your whole mind-set. We want to hear about your networking experiences. What makes it difficult or easy for you? Are there any different techniques you employ to get results? Try out Robert’s six-step plan and let us know how it goes.

Robert Myatt is director of Kaisen Consulting.

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