Lockdown and remote working away from my team and normal day-to-day have prompted a lot of reflection time and a massive realisation that my personal professional network has been the lifeblood of survival. I’ve spent significant time in the last four months looking at my network, appreciating it in new light, investing in it and celebrating it. My professional network has given me the courage, self-belief, and incentive to keep going. I’m truly grateful for it every day.
It’s that network that has fed and clothed me and my team for some 15 years, and its also my network that is delivering real support throughout lockdown. This obvious realisation has led to debate across the team about networking, what it is and how – in our new virtual world – we can still effectively ‘work the room’. The answer is different for everyone, but central to us all is the support, friendship and the listening time that has been possible.
So, when the team asked me to write a blog on networking, saying ‘you’re good at it’… ‘oh crap’, I think, finally I’m found out – I’m an imposter.
But in putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard doesn’t have the same ring to it), I realise that, actually, that’s not true. It has taken looking back on my years of practice (and the small matter of a global pandemic) for me to fully appreciate this.
But my team has no idea that until recently, I genuinely believed that networking for business was where I lacked compared to others I know.
So, with this as the starting point, I can’t write a piece on networking without confessing to the fact that it’s the element of business that makes me the MOST uncomfortable. Through lockdown, I have learned that networking is perhaps the most essential business lever we must work with right now. Networking remains the lifeblood of business, delivering new business leads and creating new business opportunities.
I was a relatively shy, 20-year-old country bumpkin when I came to London to follow love and study psychology.
35 years later, still in London, I now work in and own an award-winning PR agency. How on earth did I end up in the uber-confident PR industry, a world that is fuelled by constant networking, when its honestly something I initially feared and avoided?
Ironically, I think the perception of networking is perhaps a negative one and therefore those in the 80s and 90s who taught you how to ‘work the room’ were people I perceived to be people that had innate confidence. And because of that it looks scary and impossible from afar. In part, my perception that I couldn’t do it or it wasn’t me, was because I felt that I didn’t necessarily belong there, or because I hadn’t established my own network – yet!
Even today – people expect those who work in PR to be larger than life, out every night and vivacious, very confident and in amongst it all the time. This was the PR of the 80s and 90s. A high-octane profession for a high-octane world. One where I felt awkward and needed a drink or two to feel more able to be ‘brave’ in events and networking situations.
Today, older, wiser and undoubtedly more sober, I feel surer of myself and know that I can hold my own and that I don’t need to be at every event just to be seen.
But it has taken time and years of learning and investment to create my form of networking. One that has worked for me and my business. I’ve learned that we don’t need to be at everything, but we do need to be at relevant events and gatherings to remain central, updated and part of our communities.
As we have all proved recently, this can happen without needing to attend events and dinners every night of the week, but instead by investing time and interest in people that you know and care about. That’s what’s really got a lot of people through this extraordinary period of time.
Apart from the great joy of working with clients to tell their stories and see their businesses grow and succeed (we’ve done a lot of that), without my network of supporters who have over the years repeatedly provided friendship, counsel and extended their networks to me, this small business would not still be thriving.
Some I’m in touch with very regularly, others more sporadically, but the value in these relationships is authentic and genuine. My network probably numbers no more than 50 close relationships, and a further 50 or more infrequent supporters and friends. The common connection is that they are all people that have seen me, the business and my team develop over the years. These relationships exist because they deliver a mutual return and value and because both parties have invested in those relationships in both good times and bad.
An authentic network isn't created easily.
In the early days, I thought you could buy into a network, some people still do. Am I part of the in-crowd or am I going to be at theplace to be seen? Ultimately it was expected that if you were in PR then you needed to be at all the ‘in-events' and that’s how business came. It doesn’t… For me, these events aren’t in my comfort zone and so it simply didn’t work.
Each of us must find our own network, and invest in it for it to reap dividends. A network in my book is more than just contacts. We all have contacts, hundreds of them. To me, a network is more than a list, and although contacts are critically important and useful at times, a network is held dearly and closely. They are people I’ve grown with, people who get my brand and respect it, people I have spent time with, supported throughout, those who celebrate, chivvy and commiserate, and ultimately, those who care.
Spending time with people over a coffee or light lunch is critical. In our new remote working world, you should pick up the phone. It is far more intimate and a more powerful way to build relationships than a faceless email.
Just a chat and a catch up mean a lot. Your real supporters will just enjoy this time together. If something comes up that’s relevant then that’s a bonus!
Don't try too hard
Make it genuine, authentic and natural. If it's not a natural environment, situation or group, it’s very hard to build a comfortable relationship. Cliques are real and powerful. You may feel uneasy if you have nothing or little in common and you are doing something just for business. This is unlikely to yield dividends.
Kiss a lot of frogs
Try lots of different places until you find your kind of networking environment. If it's uncomfortable and you can’t be yourself – get out of there! This takes time to learn and a lot of failed events to find your real places of value. My greatest success has been in groups where there are authentic shared values, interests or passions. You are far more likely to meet like-minded people who can become part of your treasured network.
Keep extending your network
It’s about remaining up to date on what we do for a living. Learning is a constant delight and excitement that keeps the industry fresh and exciting. A network can also support you with your work, bringing you valuable industry insight. So, try continually to communicate with new groups and organisations. It’s enjoyable finding new places, topics and groups that hold interest to me. Networking should be enjoyed, not endured. That shared new experience gives an opportunity to create new groups, meet new people, and frankly provides an easier start to conversations.
Create your networking group
At the start of COVID-19, I was due to host three Siren Comms supported networking events to say thank you, to create new ways to connect and to enjoy a healthy debate. Lockdown stopped this and we moved our gatherings online, creating the Good People Gathering. This group continues regular catch ups and remains one of the genuine positive outcomes of lockdown.
Be a matchmaker
Share and introduce your contact base with each other. You’ll get a real kick out of pairing people up that will enjoy meeting, discussing and collaborating. Although it may not seem to deliver you any immediate dividends, it does in the long-term and will be remembered in the future and you may be introduced by them to just the person you were looking for!