By networking and professional speaking expert Stefan Thomas, who is the author of Business Networking for Dummies and Win The Room. Stefan can be found here
Recently I was speaking to some students about the subject of networking and one of them remarked that their Mum had told them ‘it isn’t what you know, it is who you know’.
And I didn’t like that, because I felt it massively undervalued the three or four years of study they had put in, as well as the expertise of their lecturers and mentors. So here’s my take on it.
You can be the most qualified person in the world, but if nobody knows who you are, those qualifications and even experience are unlikely to lead to the job offers or business opportunities you’re seeking. So I advocate that as well as focussing on building their education, qualifications and experience, students should also build their network too. And it is NEVER too early to start.
The same applies to the rest of us too. Any business and business owner needs a network, as well as needing to be excellent at what they do.
Networking doesn’t have to mean networking events. At the time I write this, in late 2023, there are many other options to build our network, our visibility and our credibility, even if we never leave our desks!
Firstly, and I massively advocate this to students, start with your peer group. Who do you already know? For students it makes so much sense to connect with their fellow students AND their lecturers and mentors. These folk may well be sat the opposite side of the desk from them in a few years at a job interview. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having the unfair advantage of already knowing the person who is interviewing you!
For those of us in business, our existing address book is often overlooked in the quest to make new contacts. A really sensible activity for anyone new in business is to go through their ‘phone and look at who they know who might be able to help them. I have done this over and over since I went into business in 2007. Not only are these folk already ‘warm’ (they know us) but very often they are more than happy to help with introductions. Old work colleagues, old bosses, old mentors as well as our social connections too.
Secondly, online and social media plays a massive role in building and maintaining our network these days. I constantly look for people who are talking about the subjects I have expertise in on social media, and join in the conversations. I actively seek out people I’d like to do business with and engage with them online before I ever approach them with an offer of my services. And I constantly post content too, so that if potential customers are checking me out they can see that I know what I’m talking about (or at least be able to make up their own minds about that!).
By expressing my opinion on various topics online, and by posting my advice on networking, as often as possible, I am often told by clients that they hired me because they ‘felt like they already knew me’. I was booked for a major speaking gig, at an annual conference for a large organisation a few years ago. I didn’t meet the organisers until the day of the conference, by which point I had already been paid. I asked them why they chose me as their key speaker for the day and they replied that having been recommended to me, they checked me out online and felt like they ‘already knew me’. The massive uplift in trust when you put effort into your online relationships, and the content you put out online, can have a huge impact on your career and business.
Thirdly, if you can bring yourself to leave your desk, events and networking events are still as important now as they ever were. I’m travelling to a business show next week where, in the course of the five hours or so I’ll spend there, I’ll meet dozens of folks, including catching up with some existing contacts, and meeting new people along the way. I am amazed at how many times I turn up to an event like this and someone who I know says “oh, I’m glad you’re here, I’ve been meaning to call you”. Try your hardest to get along to networking events, industry conferences and anywhere else you have the opportunity to meet existing contacts and new folks too.
Every big opportunity starts with a little conversation. I’ve made my career from starting little conversations, turning some of them into big opportunities, and teaching others how to do the same.