Networking: A Critical Skill for Leaders

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Networking is tough. It takes energy. It takes focus. It is essential for leaders across all industries and at all levels. And it is critical that all leaders continuously develop and deepen their networks. This is important for several reasons:

  1. You never know when you will need help. In my case, my recent layoff required me to reach out to my network to help me find new opportunities;
  2. Leaders must maintain a healthy outside perspective in order to bring new and different ideas into their work, and a network provides this;
  3. A leader needs balance in life in order to be fully effective, and even the process of building a network can provide this.

One of the best moves I made was probably 8 to 10 years ago. At that time, I discovered that what other successful people had and that I did not have was a network. I sat down and planned an attack to increase my network in three different directions: within my company, within my community, and within my industry.

I did not have to do much to increase my network within the company – it was already rather strong. What I did do, however, was to find opportunities to volunteer and participate in activities, committees, projects, or other events with individuals from all the various business units at the company in order to meet people I did not interact with on a regular basis.

I made an effort to establish deeper connections with people I talked to regularly. Sometimes this happens in the normal course of business. Sometimes you have to help it along. One thing I did was to form a women’s group to help us connect and to build support for one another across the business. This was successful, so I helped to form a similar group of women at a different level of the organization so that they could experience the same.

I scheduled lunches with many different people and always had delightful, inspiring, meaningful conversations with people when I did. I stopped to talk with people during the day. Some of my favorite times at work are the serendipitous hallway conversations I have with my colleagues. Building my network within my company not only made my work days much more pleasant, but helped to ensure work was completed more quickly, more easily and with fewer meetings.

To grow my network within my industry, the first thing I did was join an industry group that met twice each year. I established relationships with these individuals much as I had with my coworkers back in the office. Next I attended industry conferences and networked purposefully. It can be easy to retreat to the hotel room during breaks or to spend the time on your phone, but instead you need to be meeting people and exchanging business cards. Another place I found useful to grow my network was with our partners and vendors. I got to know our reinsurers and established strong relationships with them (side note: reinsurance people are some of the best people in the world!).

By growing my network within the industry, I brought value to my company and myself by being better informed on products, strategies, new technologies, and a broad range of topics. I also cultivated resources I could reach out to with questions and developed a broader range of understanding of what was possible.

To grow my network within the community, the obvious place to start was volunteering. I love volunteering. I also participated in leadership training through an organization in town called Artswave and through them was placed on the Board of Directors for a local arts organization. From there, I just kept saying “yes.” I ran the Artswave campaign for my company. I joined Zonta Club of Cincinnati, a women’s philanthropy group dedicated to advancing the status of women through service and advocacy, and now serve on the Board. I also serve on the Steering Committee for our local Women United group. I keep in touch with as many of these people as possible and count them as dear friends.

Each of these experiences brought me new friendships and a deeper connection to my community. I also gained new insights that helped me to solve challenges within the workplace and gave me new ways to grow my leadership skills.

One unexpected area I did not originally intend to explore or expand but that has brought me more personal satisfaction, support and connection, was my personal network. Over the last three years, I have met some incredible friends who are now my biggest support net as I go through my current transition. Both through my doctoral program and my personal development efforts I have established a stronger personal network than I have ever had before in my life. I am grateful every day for these beautiful friends who have taught me so much and helped me grow.

From my networking efforts, I offer you the following suggestions:

  1. Be intentional. Build a plan. Nothing too intricate, nothing too specific. Be sure to include SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) goals, but make sure you stay flexible. Keep in mind that networking is more an art than a science.
  2. Look in all directions to build your network. I looked at company, industry and community, but you might also consider your hobbies, your religion, or your personal network.
  3. Use every opportunity you can, but be gentle with yourself. As I mentioned, it is so easy to retreat back to the hotel room at conferences, but instead you need to push yourself to use that time to make connections. Sit down next to someone and start up a conversation. Introduce yourself to a vendor. Then take the breaks you need. Remember that the goal is to form meaningful connections, not just exchange business cards.
  4. Say Yes. Put yourself out there. Volunteer for events and speaking engagements. Take meetings and talk to new people. You never know where the next great idea is going to come from so keep reaching out.
  5. Be open to new and unexpected opportunities. Sometimes the most valuable connections will come from the most unexpected places. Let the universe work its magic for you!

I would love to hear your thoughts on networking. Please share!

Good luck! And as always, keep it positive and smile!

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