While in the stands at his son’s hockey game, John got a recommendation for an accountant from one of the other parents. At a conference, Chris met a group of farmers who were also interested in experimenting with cover crops. At the end of a long day of combining, Tara shared her frustrations about work-life balance with a group of fellow female farmers on Facebook.
What do all of these scenarios have in common? They are all examples of people successfully using their networks to solve a problem.
When people think of networking, they often imagine having to clock all sorts of hours attending events for the express purpose of growing their list of contacts. Instead, the potential to network is everywhere — coffee shops, planes, conferences and community events — and we should be making use of those opportunities, professionally and personally.
“Effective networking is both a business and a life skill,” says Courtenay Wolfe, a Toronto-based finance executive and popular speaker on the topic of networking. “Happiness is built more through connection than through individual achievement.”
Most people cringe at the thought of networking but that’s because they are going about it the wrong way, says Wolfe.
“It’s not about selling, it’s about giving,” she explains.
The goal when you meet someone is to help them achieve what they need. Eventually you’ll also be rewarded by receiving help with the things you need.
Wolfe has a simple strategy for networking. When you meet someone new, introduce yourself and ask questions about their interests, passions and even their hobbies. Find out what they need and want. She sums it up by saying: “Lead, listen and learn.”
So yes, if you want to expand your network, you may have to get out of your comfort zone sometimes, says Susan Regier, publisher of NetworkingToday.com in London, Ont. But there are simple approaches to make this a lot easier and more successful. For instance, don’t sit with your friends at a conference, since this limits your potential to meet new people.
Calgary’s Iris Meck, who organizes the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conferences agrees with Regier. “Be open and engage those around you. Use the receptions, trade shows and buffet lines at conferences to meet other people.”
Networking isn’t simply about collecting as many business cards as you can, cautions Wolfe. “It’s about building relationships.” It’s about quality not quantity — a few good connections will be much more valuable than a stack of business cards, she adds.
After meeting someone, Wolfe recommends making notes on the back of their card for future reference and adding them to your contacts on LinkedIn or other social media networking site.
Then, focus on nurturing those relationships. Wolfe and Regier say there are many ways you can stay connected. For instance, says Wolfe, you can email an article they might be interested in, or introduce them to someone you think could be helpful.
Invite them out for coffee or send a new chew toy if they just got a new puppy, suggests Regier.
Whatever else, make sure you actually do the things you promise to do, says Wolfe, who finds 80 per cent of people drop the ball and don’t follow through.
The Internet is opening up new opportunities for networking. For farmers who work long days, often by themselves, this can be a particularly useful tool. Grace Vanderzande who has been a beef farmer in Napanee, Ont. for 37 years started her blog (buttonsthoughts.ca) five years ago as a means of connecting with others. Her husband works off farm, her daughters are grown and have moved away, and she knew some of her own family members didn’t know what she did every day.
Vanderzande blogs about her experiences on the farm, posting pictures of newborn calves and the changing rural landscape. Today hundreds of people read her blog posts and through the blog she has become friends with farm women in Montana, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. “We understand each other, we’re all in the same boat,” says Vanderzande.
Use social media to network
There’s still nothing better than meeting people face to face, but social media tools are useful for making new contacts outside your geographical area and for staying in touch. There are many social networking sites but the big three are LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
LinkedIn bills itself as a professional social networking site. It’s a good way to stay in touch with people you meet at conferences or other events by linking profiles.
Facebook groups are a way to interact with a community of people with similar interests. You can join an existing group or start your own. These do not have to be official groups and can be open or closed.
Twitter can seem overwhelming but following people or groups who are doing work you are interested in can tame the noise. Use hashtags (the # symbol) to start a conversation or search on keywords to find like-minded people to follow.
You can be active or passive with social media. You can “listen in” (recommended for a while until you get a feel for the social media channel) or be active by posting comments and articles.
It’s best not to post anything on social media that you wouldn’t say publicly. And remember to keep it positive.
Tips for meeting new people:
- Have a goal in mind. Who are you hoping to meet? What are you looking for?
- Go early. It’s easier to meet others when there aren’t many people there yet.
- First impressions are important so dress appropriately. Unless indicated otherwise, a pair of dress pants and a polo shirt are fine. Forget the ripped jeans and faded shirt.
- Don’t sit with your friends. Use break time to mingle with others.
- Relax and think of everyone as a friend. Be genuinely interested in them.
- Be open to meeting new people. Stay off your smartphone.
- When following up, use the person’s preferred method of contact.
- Use social media such as LinkedIn to stay connected afterwards.