by Andrew Sobel, author of “Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships“
During your career you’ve heard or read lots of advice on networking. And chances are you’ve picked up a subtle, underlying message: More is better. Why else would you have left the last conference you attended with a briefcase full of business cards? Oh, you haven’t reached out to any of those folks yet (or they to you), but you “networked” and that’s what matters. And your online networking efforts are even more fruitful — you’ve got hundreds of LinkedIn connections just waiting to be cultivated.
This superficial view of networking just doesn’t, well, work.
If you really want relationships that matter, stop aimlessly collecting business cards. There is a big difference between ‘networking’ and actually building a network of deep, loyal relationships.
Unless you’re a nightclub promoter, calling, texting, and ‘Linking In’ with dozens of people every day isn’t going to help your career. Neither is doing favors just to create ‘reciprocity’ — so that people will owe you. In this age of social media, we’ve come to confuse quantity for quality. But supernetworkers understand that all contacts are not equal in terms of their career impact.
Supernetworkers segment — explicitly or intuitively — their network into these two pieces: the “critical few” and the many. And they adopt totally different tactics to stay in touch and manage them.
My own research shows that in your professional career, there are about 20-25 relationships that will become your critical few. These are also the relationships where you, in turn, can make an indelible impact.
I’m not saying that once you’ve settled on your critical few that you never need to network again. You should never stop making new contacts. But you’ll reach out to your larger group through less personal means of communication — blogs, e-newsletters, social media — than you will with your critical few. And in the meantime you’ll be refining your critical few relationships through more specialized contact like face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and so on.
Read on for more advice on how to become a supernetworker and build lasting relationships:
1. Know who your “critical few” are and cultivate them.
I advise clients to make a careful list of who they think should be their critical few and to build a regular staying-in-touch program for each of them.
In my interviews with highly successful professionals who were at the end of their careers, I discovered that most of them actually knew very early on who made up their inner circle — those 20-25 key individuals who were going to really power their career and on whom they would also have a major impact.
Your critical few should include clients or customers, prospects, colleagues, personal mentors, collaborators — by which I mean other firms or individuals you may trade leads with and work with to serve a client — and so on. Plan to personally connect two or three times a year with each of the people on your list. Add value to them in different ways. I like to think about ideas and relevant content, network value (making a valuable introduction), personal help, and fun.
2. Build your network before you need it.
Petri Byrd is the bailiff on Judge Judy Sheindlin’s family court TV show. Judge Judy isn’t any old show — it’s the most popular daytime TV program in the United States. One might assume Byrd got his coveted job because of his acting skills and training. But – I met him on a flight to Los Angeles a few years back – the real reason is because he followed this essential law.
Turns out Petri had never acted in his life. He worked with Judge Judy — as a bailiff — in Brooklyn family court in the 1990s. When he moved to L.A., he heard she was starting a TV show and called her up. She hired him immediately. Petri had developed and maintained his relationship with Judge Judy years earlier — he built his network before he needed it. By doing so, he overcame what most would see as a huge disadvantage in getting a TV role.
You have to invest in other people before you ask them for anything. Otherwise, you’ll be seen as a freeloader. Cultivate your relationships over time, the same way you would tend a garden. Then, when you do need help, you’ll find the people around you eager to lend a helping hand.
3. Follow the person, not the position.
A client of mine was promoted to a very senior position in a large Fortune 100 company. She had been the deputy in her area and was now at the top. She told me that the day her promotion was announced in the newspapers, she got dozens of calls from suppliers wanting to do business with her. ‘Do you know what I said to each of them?’ she told me. ‘I asked them, “Where were you five years ago?”’
Truly important people — those who are at the top of their careers in any field — have often brought their advisors and trusted suppliers along with them over many years. While it is not impossible to break into someone’s inner circle after they have achieved great success, it’s also not an easy task.
Build relationships with smart, motivated, interesting, and ambitious people, even if they’re not in an important job right now. Follow them throughout their careers. Before you know it, you’ll know some very important, powerful individuals who can buy your products and services.
4. Stretch yourself by building relationships with people quite different from you.
Research shows that our natural tendency is to choose others to work with who are very similar to us. But the most creative teams, the teams that solve problems the fastest, are eclectic and combine people with very different backgrounds and personalities.
Relationships with people who are just like you are easier. You can quickly agree on most everything. We gravitate toward those relationships. But that can be a problem. Those people are less likely to push you and help you develop your fullest self. In contrast, a certain amount of stress and tension is productive. And, people who are different from you often connect you into whole new networks that will complement your own.
Who’s the Steve Wozniak to your Steve Jobs — or the John Lennon to your Paul McCartney? If you put in the hard work it takes to accommodate differences, you’ll be handsomely rewarded.
5. Make them curious.
When someone is curious, they reach toward you. They want to learn more. They want to take the next step. When you evoke curiosity, you create a gravitational pull that is irresistible. Curiosity helps you get more of everything: more inquiries, more sales, more clients, more dates if you are single, more RSVPs for your party, and more friends.
When I found myself halfway around the world, with only five minutes to convince a skeptical CEO that his company should hire me, this supernetworking law became my best friend. I had a 45-minute meeting scheduled with the CEO, but at the last minute, I was told he had to leave suddenly and could spare only five minutes. Yet, my host told me the sale depended on a firm nod from the top dog. I dropped the traditional sales process everyone is taught (‘ask good questions, uncover their issues’) and instead highlighted several risks his new strategy faced — risks his own people had not surfaced — and an overlooked opportunity I thought they were missing. He leaned across the table and was suddenly engaged, because I had evoked his curiosity. Needless to say, I got the sale, a major contract.
Tell people what they need to know, not everything you know. Give brief answers to questions. Hint at things. Don’t lecture a prospective customer for 10 minutes when they ask you to describe your firm. Develop contrarian or unusual perspectives. Be seen as someone who has refreshing points of view. Say the unexpected and surprise the other person.
6. Know the other person’s agenda and help them accomplish it.
Supernetworkers know that the key to connecting with others is an understanding of what’s important to them. When you know what the other person’s priorities, needs, or goals are, you can figure out how to help them. And that’s where the rubber meets the road in building both professional and personal relationships. If you don’t know their agenda, you’re shooting in the dark or relying on some nebulous concept of charisma.
Think about it. Have you tried to get an appointment with an executive who just wouldn’t make room in their schedule for you? The problem is actually very simple: You are not connecting with and showing how you are relevant to the other person’s agenda of critical priorities!
Whether at work or in your personal life, your first job is to understand the other person’s priorities. Think about some of the key relationships you’re trying to build — be they with your boss, your colleagues, or key customers. Do you know what is important to them — really important — right now? Only when you understand this will you clearly see how you can help them and add value to the relationship.
7. Every act of generosity creates a ripple.
A collateral benefit of selfless generosity is that it draws others to you. It creates an attractive aura around you — even though that’s not the reason you do it. It is what characterizes the most influential people in history, individuals like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Andrew Carnegie, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the last chapter of Power Relationships we tell the story about a philanthropist named Rich Goldbach. One night, in a dark, empty parking lot, a strange man confronts him. Rich thinks he is about to be mugged. But the man is there for a very different motive. It has to do with an early childhood literacy program Rich funded in the local community. One of the grade-schoolers who learned to read in the program has in turn taught his father to read. The man has come to thank Rich, not rob him.
When Rich told us this story, he was choked with emotion. He had experienced, firsthand, the ripple effect of an act of generosity. There is no way of knowing how your own generosity — to a cause or an individual — creates a ripple effect that influences many others. You end up touching many other lives, often without even knowing it. Supernetworkers, in short, are among the most generous people I know.
As you read this you might be thinking: Great. All my frenetic attempts at networking so far have been in vain! Not true. Just go through your contact list and ask yourself: Who will go out of their way to endorse me and introduce me to their network? Who will drop what they are doing and help me when I am in need? Who will tell others that they’ve never known someone as trustworthy and talented as me?
After asking yourself these questions, you may find that only five or ten people remain on your list. And that’s a great start: A handful of deep, loyal relationships is always better than hundreds of superficial contacts. Quality trumps quantity every time.
Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships, and recently published “Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships“. His first book, the bestselling “Clients for Life“, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. In addition to “Power Relationships“, his other books include “Power Questions“, “Making Rain” and the award-winning “All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships“.