When my marketing department reminded me that the time for me to contribute to the RTS blog had arrived, I was dwelling on what topic to focus on this time around. Given that I tend to attend industry conferences at every opportunity I get and having been given two such opportunities within the span of a month to meet some pretty interesting individuals, the decision to choose networking as the topic of this blog was pretty straightforward.
When I first began my career more than 20 years ago as a business analyst in American Airlines, in my mind, the term ‘network’ implied either a collection of linked computers or all the destinations that an airline flew to with not even the slightest allusion to a human connection. In those days, I had a pretty narrow definition of success – design an algorithm to solve a business problem or troubleshoot a buggy piece of code. Any other activity that my marketing and sales colleagues used to undertake religiously, like making trips to exotic locales to attend industry conferences were considered boondoggles that were merely a waste of time. As I progressed in my career, I started gaining a holistic appreciation of the business model and a striking realization of the power of human interaction in either making or breaking a deal. As the saying goes, businesses don’t do business with other businesses, people do business with people. The human element is perhaps the most important aspect of any business relationship and this can simply not happen if there are no face to face interactions with peers in the industry and beyond.
‘Grow your network‘ is a popular refrain preached by mentors and career coaches and with very good reason. It goes without saying that for a job seeker, the bigger the network, the greater are the chances of landing a job commensurate with skills and expectations. For business professionals, especially in the sales domains, attending conferences to expand their network and potentially business opportunities is not a luxury but a necessity and the skyrocketing prices of attending, speaking and exhibiting at conferences bears ample testimony to the demand organizers face from vendors. Networking is frequently listed by delegates as the main motivation for attending conferences. In the analog world, informal introductions and discussions over lunch have been the tried and tested method of starting many productive relationships. More extreme and targeted networking at conferences is an accepted practice and is frequently listed as the main motivation of delegates to attend industry events. In the digital domain, sites like LinkedIn, Skillpages, etc. have made it quite convenient to seek out and make professional connections. However, I would contend that though digital forums are very useful in fostering and building relationships, initiation of a relationship is best done through face to face encounters. Irrespective of how much synergy may exist between two professionals, a business relationship typically has a solid foundation only after a personal rapport is initially built between the interested parties.
For those of us who are given the opportunity to attend conferences, the networking sessions specifically set up by the organizers are god-sends and makes getting to know some interesting people both from a professional a personal level that much easier (copious amounts of alcohols at these events don’t hurt either). The thought of walking up to abject strangers at a conference with an unsolicited introduction is quite an awkward proposition for most, but the more you engage in that, you realize that the imagined rejections that you were dreading never actually materialize and that everybody is in the same boat as you. In fact, in my case, even though I don’t consider myself a social animal, not only did this become pain-free, it actually became enjoyable as you never know what kind of interesting relationship might develop as a result of your initiative. In fact, I have made quite a few professional contacts who as an added bonus have also become good friends and this further incentivizes me to network at every opportunity I get.
Networking, besides the obvious effect of helping you get access to better career opportunities or growing your business, is quite rewarding on a personal level. It gives you insight into different perspectives and motivations of other human beings whose end objective is typically not that much different from yours. Though obviously prospects and partners tend be on top of the food chain when it comes to strategic networking, if time permits, I have found indiscriminate networking to be quite fulfilling as well. Meeting people from unfamiliar domains has enhanced my perspective and though there may not be much in common on a professional level there could be significant similarities on a personal level leading to lasting friendships. This relationship may have never had a chance if I had ruled them out as not being of business value merely by glancing at their title and company on their lanyards. Just as you should never judge a book by it’s cover, I've realized that you should never judge the value of a contact by his or her lanyard.
Networking can be a potentially uncomfortable experience when it comes to competitors that you may run into at conferences. Though some people can feel awkward and tend to avoid their competitors like the plague, I have found that even though there obviously will not be much (if any) professional knowledge being exchanged between them (for good reason), an informal discussion focusing on personal small talk at least increases familiarity and this should hold in you in good stead in this dynamic marketplace where a competitor today can be a client, partner or colleague tomorrow.
Would be very interested in knowing where you stand on networking. Please feel free to share any thoughts you have on this.