Earlier today, I was speaking with a long-time friend and tremendously accomplished executive. Our conversation turned to his interest in independent directorships with corporate boards. He exclaimed how difficult it has been to be considered for board opportunities. He never thought it would be this arduous. After all, he has served as an executive board director, investor and director, but only in situations where he has been the CEO or has owned a portion of the company. Like so many others, he has not been able to cross the chasm into capturing that independent directorship. Over the course of the conversation, he lamented about difficult it is. Then, the truth came out and he admitted – that he never took the time to build or much less nurture his network. Therefore, I thought I would be apropos to revisit how to build your network.
It is astonishing to me how many executives truly struggle with building their network. In some ways, it is understandable. As a CSuite executive, you are really busy day in and day out. It is all about performance and outcomes. So, when do you truly have the time to build your network? With twenty or more years of professional experience behind them many suddenly realize they have done very little to network and build a base to help leverage their next career move or corporate boards. So, the executive either runs through their network very quickly or simply has no idea where to start. They are left wondering why the next CSuite role or independent directorship they desire is not becoming a reality. Following are some essential tips on how to network and how to build your network.
Finding the Right Forum
Just because everyone else seem to think that group, forum or conference is the place to network, does not necessarily mean it is the perfect fit for you. I have attended hundreds of “networking” events where I was told “it is the place to be”. In reality, it was a supreme waste of time! The event, forum or group must not only meet you short term objectives, but also your longer-term goals. Of course, in networking etiquette it not all about you, but you have to be smart with time and resources.
You want to swim in blue water and places that have original contacts and value. These places are where there or more of “them” and not hundreds of “you”.
Otherwise, you will be in the same room, group or forum that the rest of your peers are working. Essentially it is a bunch of executives that are looking for the same thing you are – your next piece of business, next partnership, or your ideal CSuite, career path forward or independent directorship. Attending a conference where everyone else wants a board seat, does not bring much originality to your objective or long term goals. One tiny tip and I know it may seem silly, but do not wear your name tag on the left; you must wear it on the right. Given that you shake someone’s hand with your right hand, remember – right hand, right arm, right up to your eyes.
Build a Base
The most effective network is built early and over time. It is something that is carefully nurtured and evolves. People primarily do business with people they know, like and want to help. Building a network takes time and intentional effort. It must be part of your daily activity, just as phone and emails seem to prevail in our way of communicating and building relationships. Ensure that you are establishing a way for this to be a two-way conversation – give and you will receive.
LinkedIn, BoardProspects and other similar online groups are viewed with mixed opinion by many. But, in my opinion these groups are not only effective, but absolutely necessary. If you are not on LinkedIn with a presence that drives value and thought leadership, you may as well not be networking at all. It is that valuable of a platform. Your presence should be professional and definitely not personal to include a professional picture and content that drives interest and value. As for Twitter, just as important – not personal or political, but truly a place where you drive professional thought leadership.
I vividly remember when LinkedIn first came into the marketplace back in my retained search days. My colleagues and I ran from LinkedIn like the plague. We did not want anyone to “connect” with us, we only wanted to connect with “them” on their terms. Interesting how now in current day, LinkedIn has made it so difficult for the executive search world with more companies using the tool directly to find their own talent and bypass search fees and long processes! LinkedIn is truly essential.
Have a Process
Tantamount to networking success is following up – not just when you need your network, but when your network needs you. For each and every conversation, meeting or interaction I have, I typically follow that discussion with an invitation to connect on LinkedIn. I always enter recipients email and send a personal note and never use an easy category (such as we did business together) or the automatically generated note. I also consider each and every request to connect and more often than not accept the invitation to connect. Once you are connected on LinkedIn, it is also easy to determine their Twitter handle and start following them there as well. This process, done day in and day out, has paid significant dividends to the growth of my firm, business and the future of my network.
Taking it one step further, rather than just asking or talking on social media, use thought leadership to share value with your network. This can be in blog posts, white papers and sharing of other thought leadership pieces already in the market. Many executives sponsor events and conferences just for the purpose of getting their company’s brand in the spotlight. I suggest taking it one step further and leveraging those sponsorships into speaking engagements. I recommend starting with moderating panels, participating as a panelist or facilitating workshop sessions. You will quickly become perceived as an expert in your field and others will want to network with you.
The etiquette in all of this is simple – treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. Return phone calls, online requests, emails and LinkedIn requests/messages promptly, just as you would like yours to be promptly responded to. Always be grateful and appreciative of those in your network. You must ensure that you give back to them. With great care and nurturing, I promise this will all pay off – now and well into the future.