Some people think networking is only useful for finding clients or landing a new job.
In fact, an often overlooked benefit of networking is the opportunity to learn from others and connect with people you can bounce new ideas off of. If you are trying to solve a business or career problem, chances are that others have already dealt with it and can offer you good advice. Even if they don’t, simply discussing the issue with others may spark creative ideas.
In addition, when you need a service or product, those in your network may be able to suggest companies that they trust and have already worked with. Ask people for recommendations and you will have plenty of companies to invite to your procurement initiative or to negotiate with directly.
Here are some tips on how to become more successful at networking:
1. Admit You Don’t Have All the Answers
The first thing you need to do is admit that you don’t know everything. So instead of reinventing the wheel or trying to solve something the hard way, tap into your network.
I met someone who was having challenges with his business and who had expended a lot of effort trying to solve a problem with many different solutions and products, including employing different contractors to try different approaches.
I asked him whether he had spoken with colleagues in the industry who would likely have had the same issues. His answer was no. And yet they were just a phone call away!
2. Make Sure to Give Rather Than Just Take
You will likely to meet with resistance from industry colleagues who are as busy as you or who don’t always recognize the benefits of networking. That’s why you build your network before you need something. Give help first so that it is easier to get help later on when you need it.
Pass along useful solutions that you have learned or read about to your network. The next time you meet members of your network, see if there is something concrete you can help them with. When the time comes when you are looking for advice or help, they will be more likely to take the time to help you.
3. Help Even Your Competitors
Even if you are in organizations that compete, it is often in your organization’s best interest to work with others in the same industry rather than keeping your distance. You can help each other reduce costs, find service providers and suppliers, or solve issues in ways that are not at each other’s expense or proprietary to your business.
And they don’t have to be down the block. You can network over the phone just as effectively as in person; in fact, a phone conversation is often easier than trying to set up a formal meeting. If they are further away, they are less likely to be concerned about sharing information with a competitor, since you are unlikely to be in the same marketplace.
4. Leverage Your Association
Industry associations exist to advance the industry and help members advance their careers. When you need to find solutions or get advice about issues and problems you might be having, your industry association can be an excellent resource.
Hopefully you have built your network already, but if you have an issue or problem that nobody in your current network can solve, call your association and ask if they can recommend someone or pass your request along to another member. If you have access to the member directory, use it to find a person you think might be able to help you based on their location, title, etc.
When you are at conferences, find people you think can add value to your network (and whom you can offer value to as well) and be sure to follow up after the event via email, LinkedIn, or phone.
So, the next time you think about networking, don’t just think about preparing for when you need another job or need to find new clients. Think of it as the ongoing practice of sharing information and knowledge for everyone’s benefit.