Networking skills

The ICSA Annual Conference is next week which is a wonderful opportunity to update your knowledge and top up your CPD points.  But it is also a really good opportunity to do some networking.  Building on the excellent G+C magazine article on student networking, here are my experiences:

When I was a Company Secretary I hardly ever networked.  I didn’t know how to go about it, thought I was too busy and couldn’t see the benefit of it.  By being too nervous to go to events unless I absolutely had to, I was missing out on the opportunity to build a supportive professional network while I was in work and to support me when I was made redundant.  When I got more involved in ICSA Branch activities, I realised what a mistake this had been and I had to start from the very beginning.  How much easier it would have been if I had started years ago!  Judging by the number of governance professionals I have coached and mentored who want to work on their networking skills, I don’t think I am on my own.

For me, the initial temptation was to use Linkedin – a nice safe way to build a network.  But I quickly realised there is no substitute for getting out to events and actually meeting people.    I started by going on an excellent short course run by a local learning and development professional (John Coleman of Red Vanilla).  On that course I learnt the basics.  I then just had to go out and practise. These are the sorts of things to consider if you are in the same position:-

  • What kind of people are you hoping to meet and for what purpose? If you are looking to build a network of governance professionals then there are plenty of ICSA branch events, CPD events and conferences which you could go to and  If you are looking to build other networks – find out where the people you want to network with meet and go along.   Ensure you are clear what your objective is in attending an event.
  • The most important lesson I learnt is that almost everyone is in the same situation as you – very few people are natural networkers. If you approach someone at an event and introduce yourself they will not be thinking “who is this weirdo” they will be thinking, “thank goodness someone has come to speak to me so I am not standing here on my own!”  If everyone is sitting down, ask someone if you can sit next to them and introduce yourself.  Or sit down early and wait for others to come to you, and then smile, say hello and introduce yourself.
  • Have a stock of friendly questions to ask someone – “where are you from?”, “how was your journey?”, “how long have you worked there?” for example. The aim is to have a conversation and build a relationship from which you both benefit.  Asking questions shows sincerity and builds trust.  Most people will happily answer questions about themselves, which takes the pressure off you.
  • Listen to the answers they give. If you listen it will help you keep the conversation flowing – you are looking for common ground.  People almost always say something you can ask a follow up question about, which demonstrates that you are listening.   It is also respectful and validates the other person.  Demonstrate that you are listening in other ways using non-verbal cues such as nodding to show agreement or understanding and maintaining eye contact (but not too much!).
  • Give some information about yourself – a simple personal disclosure such as what you do in your spare time helps build trust and the relationship. Find something that you are enthusiastic about because enthusiasm is infectious and will show yourself in your best light and help you relax.
  • Exchange business cards if appropriate. This is easier if you ask for their card first.
  • After you have met, make a note of their name, any significant things you remember about them and anything you promised you would do (connect on Linkedin, share an article, email them etc), and make sure you do it promptly. I write it on the back of their card almost immediately.
  • Good networking is not about meeting as many people as you possibly can, but If you are keen to meet a few new people at an event you need to find a gracious way to move on from one person to a new one. Again, it is accepted that this is the reason why people are attending the event so it is perfectly acceptable to say that you have enjoyed talking to them but you are going to do a bit more circulating.
  • After the event connect on LinkedIn with people you have met or follow their blogs or on twitter. Keep in touch by liking or commenting on things they post and if you come across something you think they might find interesting share it with them.   If you can, offer to help them, refer them or recommend them, they may well return the favour later.

Networking is a skill like any other.  If you need more support in developing this skill consider working with a coach, or sign up for the ICSA mentoring scheme if you are an ICSA member.