Networking is an oft-used word that has become cliché in many quarters. Many people talk about networking, but few do it right.
The Los Altos Golf & Country Club, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, is an oasis of greenery and fresh air that offers to its select members a therapeutic escape from the daily pressure of the high-tech industry.
With a hefty membership fee, the club is one of the most exclusive private social associations in America. Membership is by invitation only and requires sponsorship by four existing members.
A gathering place of titans and aspiring titans, the club unofficially concentrates the power of Silicon Valley. It is said that more deals get done over brunch at the club on weekends than in boardrooms during office hours on weekdays.
When I relocated to Silicon Valley, I knew that being part of this club would be a catalyst to success. However, being new in town, I had few connections and little influence. Nonetheless, after months of research from my contact and resources, I resolved to influence the board president himself, Tracy O’Rourke.
I worked my then fledgling network, and by early spring time in 1996, found myself sitting in Mr. O’Rourke’s office, being invited to play golf at the Los Altos Golf & Country Club.
There were several factors at work here that helped me meet Mr. O’Rourke. My success did not happen overnight; it was built layer by layer.
Networking is the establishing and maintaining of a relationship with a select group of relevant people we can rely on to further our goals and who, in turn, can rely on us to further their goals.
If done right, networking does not simply multiply our reach. Rather, our reach is raised to the power of the people we know. A network provides an exponential increase in our
impact and efficiency. In other words, a network can be defined as what we know raised to the power of who we know.
People often wonder how I established a strong network starting from nothing. Here are guidelines I have discovered during my career that have enabled me to create and maintain efficient networks that have greatly improved my chances of success.
Step 1: Actively seek out gathering places
The Los Altos Golf & Country Club is a physical gathering place that, as I said above, concentrates the power of Silicon Valley. It is the ultimate watering hole for the successful and influential.
Depending on your life stage and career aspirations, there are different gathering places suited to your goals. Young entrepreneurs may not target expensive country clubs when they are just starting out. Look for people you would like to include in your network, find the appropriate gathering places, and improve your networking ability step by step.
A gathering place acts as an efficient way to connect people with like-minded objectives. To derive the benefit of a network, you need to be at the gathering place. Actively seek to be part of it. Unless you are welcomed at the gathering place, you will be an outsider of the network.
Once you are part of your desired network, be actively present there.
Step 2: Do your homework first
Before becoming a member of the Los Altos Golf & Country Club, I researched the club extensively. I learned its history, understood its programs, and toured its grounds. Then I mapped out influential members of the club.
Once I identified Mr. O’Rourke as the President of the club’s board of directors, I found any connection in my existing network to him. I learned about him, his track record, successes, and plans at Varian Associates. I read all newspaper clippings about him, went over his interviews and asked others about him. When the opportunity came to meet Mr. O’Rourke, I was fully prepared. I felt I was meeting somebody I knew well even though it was the first time I was shaking his hand.
Networking consumes time, energy, and resources with often indirect and uncertain benefits. You do not want to be wasting energy on networks that consume you and yet are unlikely to support you in your growth. So, do your homework, be informed, be choosy, and be prepared.
Step 3: Know what you bring to the table
A network link is a two-way connection. It does not matter if the person you are trying to reach happens to be the President of the United States. If you desire that he take you seriously, demonstrate that you can bring value to the relationship.
This is often very hard, especially when you are trying to network with people who are position-wise, job-wise, or wealth-wise at a higher level than you. However, consider a number of things you can bring to the table: your own experiences, your ideas and observations, your background, your history, your cultures and beliefs, your feedback on the other party’s interests, your own contacts, etc.
Contribute your good demeanour, and make the other party laugh with a sense of humour. Connect on something that you both have in common: kids’ schools, local neighbourhood, social causes, etc. You always have something to add. Irrespective of a person’s position in life, he is a human being, just like you.
Sometimes we create these oversized images of dignitaries and celebrities, though everyone is very similar deep inside. Rich and influential people also have insecurities, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, and worries like the rest of us. They also have a need to intellectually connect with others and may be wanting to talk to you more than you want to talk to them. Do not be intimidated by who they are. Rather connect with them at as a human.
A cautious note here: I have found that people, in an attempt to force a connection, go out of their way to please the other party. They sometimes lie and often overcommit as to what they are willing to do. Such people tell you what you want to hear when you meet them. They commit to everything you want them to. It is easy to commit and forget or fail to deliver. Try to establish a connection but do not force one. Bring to the table only what you can really deliver.
It is always better to under-commit and over-deliver rather than over-commit and under-deliver!
Step 4: Be prepared and rehearse
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” There is much truth in the adage—preparation is key to a successful meeting.
Preparation means taking time well before the meeting to think through what we may expect out of the meeting, who will be at the meeting, what topics may be discussed, what are the expected outcomes of the meeting, what roles the attendees could play, what would influence them, what are your desired take-always from the meeting, action items, etc.
Before you set out to network, take time to think the meeting through. The worst mistake you can make is to go to a networking event unprepared as that may have the negative effect of damaging your credibility and position in the network. It takes time often to get a meeting and you do not want to lose the one opportunity to make a bond.
Once prepared, rehearse! Rehearse the talk you need to give, the point you need to make, the idea you may need to explain. Practice makes perfect.
Step 5: Tell stories
Storytelling is instinctive to human nature. It is a core aspect of our behaviour that has allowed people to live together in groups, to communicate, to recount history, to remember battles fought and won, and to build beliefs, myths, and legends.
Note, by storytelling here I do not mean embellishing facts or lying. Rather, I mean framing your message in a narrative that is impactful and easy to digest.
When you meet people in your network, do not attempt to get their initial attention by laying out data. Often times, we want to quote metrics and numbers from the start of a meeting. This is common among technology company founders and engineers.
In my experience, jumping to data is an approach that rarely works. Always start your meeting with a pleasantry or a joke if you can pull it off. Then frame your message in a narrative that the other parties can both emotionally and rationally connect to.
Connect to your listeners at a personal level. Ask them about themselves. Show interest in their children, their families, and their causes. Then use these hints and craft your own narrative weaving your message into the conversation.
Step 6: Be yourself
When we meet someone we feel we need, there is a tendency for us to exaggerate our statements to impress the other party. Think for a minute about the dynamics during an interview. The person seeking the job is always emphasizing how good they are at everything. We tend to do the same thing when we are networking with others, especially people who are higher ranked than us.
In my experience, this is a mistake. It does not help but rather hurts us when we overstate our experiences, magnify our accomplishments, and extend the truth. How can that hurt us? It hurts us because the other party is at least as intelligent as we are. Successful leaders can very easily detect when someone is telling the truth or when someone is embellishing facts to get noticed.
To be successful at networking, always be who you are. Listen attentively, think before answering and making a point, remain humble and respectful, quote data only when you know they are factual, ask genuine questions, do not be shy to say you do not know, and change your own positions if the other party makes a more convincing argument.
To be yourself, you need to know yourself well and know yourself truly. We are all biased towards our own ideas and behaviours. To be taken seriously, genuinely understand your abilities and limitations and then accordingly contribute to others. We are all born with things that are valuable. Find those in you and leverage them to build your network.
Step 7: It takes more than one meeting
Networking is more art than engineering. It requires a good deal of interaction and a lot of dedication without a clear expected outcome. Often times, it costs a lot of money and time too. You cannot approach networking as a computer code where if you input ten hours in three meetings with eight people then you expect two job offers as output.
While many of us know that this is not the case, we often do the mistake of approaching people with this sort of formulaic expectation in mind. Networking is all about people connecting. The aim and goal of networking is simply to make connection. Do not measure your network’s value by the outcome of every meeting or by expecting a benefit from everybody you meet.
Let’s say, through hard work and careful planning, you finally meet an individual who can support you to achieve your goal. Of course, it is very exciting to finally meet this person. This person might have unique insight to a problem, or they might have a contact at a company you are trying to work for. One step closer to achieving success, right? Of course, you want to move forward and achieve your goal immediately!
That rarely works, if ever. Let us pause for a moment. Put yourself in the shoes of the individual you would like to meet. Imagine someone trying to meet you solely for information. Would you want someone to approach you with only one goal in mind, with only one reason to meet? The answer is a resounding no.
For this reason, it is important not to talk about what you need, what you want. Approach networking with the objective of building trust, growing confidence and friendship. Like setting the frame for a perfect photograph, you’ll find that if you are patient, you’ll find the perfect opportunity to present your case. Networking has better long-term benefits if you wait for the appropriate opportunity instead of rushing towards your own goals.
A sturdy network is built the same way as a good friendship: establishing mutual trust, building on common interest, and investing good will. All of these are subjective goals. But they are ingredients in establishing a strong bond with others who matter. Business and career benefits are secondary results of strong relationships built on trust.
Take time to know the person you are networking with. Understand each other’s ideas and objectives, build trust, and then brainstorm future collaborations. All of these happen over the course of many interactions. Go into a networking event with the mindset that the event is one step in many to come. You will then not try to achieve everything in that one meeting, rush your objectives and burn bridges. These hasty actions lead to a weak networking strategy.
Step 8: Refresh your network
I keep all my business cards in a big shoebox. Every other year, I go through that shoebox and I toss a large number of the cards away. In fact, I toss away more cards than I keep. People change roles all the time and our relationships with them change too. Further, we gather more information on people as time goes by.
To keep a network healthy, pruning the network is as important as adding to the network. It is important that you take a look at your network at least once every year and decide who you should ‘un-friend’. This is not mean—it is wise. One issue I have with large social network sites like Facebook and LinkedIn is that they do not encourage un-friending as much as they encourage friending.
An unruly large network is very inefficient. A great network is like a bonsai tree—it is healthiest and lasts longest when it is carefully pruned. A network is worthy if it is selective.
Let’s Play Golf
When I was ushered into Mr. O’Rourke’s office that day, I found him to be an affable gentleman. He greeted me with a broad smile and a warm handshake. Even though our backgrounds were very different, we connected right away.
After a few pleasantries and some questions, Mr. O’Rourke quickly realised that I had enough experiences and could bring enough opportunities to contribute to the club’s reputation. Within ten minutes, he casually said, “Well, if you want to become a member of the club, you need to understand the course. Let’s play golf this weekend!” That would be my initiation into the club! I turned out to be one of the first candidates who succeeded in becoming a member within only a few months.
Once I joined, Tracy introduced me to several other key club members and I was able to quickly make inroads in the local business network. It was a life-changing opportunity for me.
Maintaining the network
Remember, networking continues even after you become part of an inner circle. Work at blending into the circle, maintain your reputation, and be committed. Do not try to promote yourself too much or too quickly.
Successful people are not easily impressed. Put in your time, work hard, and build your track record. Above all, be sincere. Most people are hungry for genuine connection, and are just looking for a friend. A good friend always has positive energy and a pure smile. Finally, dress the part. Make an effort to look presentable when you are starting out. T-shirts and jeans are acceptable only when you become Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.
The writer is a venture capitalist at LTC Innovations Inc and an Executive Advisor for NUS Enterprise / Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore Business School. He has written two books on business and entrepreneurship, titled Wonder: Amazing How a Little Wonder can Change the World, and Tomorrow: Create your Future Today.
This article is an excerpt from Tomorrow: Create your Future Today.