Building a network of business allies can be a painful task, but it's worth the investment.
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Behind every successful leader is a network of supporters and confidantes and one of the most important investments you can make in yourself is to cultivate that leadership network.
Networking can be a bit of a dreaded task for some people, conjuring up the image of warm glasses of wine, random conversations and people looking over your shoulder for someone better to talk to.
But make no mistake, building a network is one of your biggest power-ups as a leader. It’s a vital investment; just as important as developing management skills. In today’s fast-moving market, you will likely hold different leadership positions in different companies at different times.
You can’t (always!) take your great people with you. But your network does come with you: it grows with you, extending and evolving as your leadership journey progresses. If it’s built on strong foundations of purpose, generosity and reciprocity, your network will play a key role in providing opportunities that you could have never dreamed of.
Why does a good network matter so much?
IT’S HOW YOU LEARN
A great leadership network will include many different types of people and organisations. But fundamentally, a network should be full of people you can learn from, whether that’s the next generation of up-and-coming innovators, your industry peer group, or subject experts in your field.
Sometimes a difficult problem you face as a leader is better discussed with someone who has no stake in the outcome of the decision. Not everything can be dealt with in-house and it’s good to have a network of formal and informal advisers and friends who can act as sounding boards.
Having a network will help you learn from the other interesting players in your sector who will often be the best with whom to share ideas and learn about what’s coming down the pipe.
IT’S HOW YOU MEET PEOPLE WHO CAN HELP YOU SUCCEED
Your business will need many other people to be successful, whether they’re working in it as an employee, working with it as a partner, client or supplier, investing in it as an angel venture capitalist, or commenting on it as a journalist or market analyst.
And while there are formal channels for meeting all these different people, the relationships you build will be much stronger if they’re developed in more informal, less transactional conditions.
Someone you meet over breakfast at an event, or through speaking at a conference, gets to know you when you’re not in the middle of doing business. That provides a much stronger basis for a non-transactional, trust-based working relationship than if you only ever meet people while ‘at work’.
IT’S HOW YOU GET KNOWN
When you’re building a business, building its profile is a critical success factor. A large part of that success will be driven by how you as a leader tell the story of your business to key constituencies, from potential recruits to investors, clients and the media.
As a leader, much of your most valuable work will take place outside the office walls, engaging with people who can help your business, and whom you can help and offer opportunities to in turn.
The same applies if you’re building a leadership career within someone else’s business. At this stage, the story you’re building is your own: you might be looking for a new role, or people who could help and advise you on taking the next step.
Whatever stage you’re at, it’s never too soon to get yourself out there: you never know when the connections you make and the relationships you build may turn out to be needed.
Building a network is a virtuous circle too, and generates momentum over time, as current contacts are comfortable introducing you to their contacts, and a warm introduction is far more likely to yield results than a cold call from someone you’ve never heard of.
Reciprocity is the key to successful networking, so find ways to start building relevant and reciprocal relationships with the people you’d like to be part of your network. Think about the tools you have at your disposal that could bring value to your network, and at the same time consider which of your contacts will bring most value to your business, then find the sweet spot.
Could you interview them for your company blog, host an event and ask them to speak on a panel, or invite them to be a thought leader on a podcast you produce? There may be a valuable introduction you can make or a prospective client you can bring to them.
Try hard to make networking worthwhile for everyone involved - for you and for your contact, for their business and for your business; that way you can build lasting relationships rather than having a ten-minute conversation or an unfocused ‘catch-up over coffee’. And if there’s a golden rule or networking? Be sure to give more than you take.
This is an edited extract from Stepping Up: How to accelerate your leadership potential by Sarah Wood and Niamh O’Keefe (FT Publishing, £14.99) publishing 19 October.