I shouldn’t love networking, but I do.
Every psychometric test I ever took during the decades of my Nine-to-Five career told me – and my colleagues and bosses – that I’m an introvert and much prefer to be sitting in a corner on my own than “working the room”. I’m a writer so I shouldn’t really be surprised. But you name a personality/competency/profiling/cognitive/aptitude test and I’ve probably taken it. And they all said more or less the same thing, “leave Helen alone to get on with her job and she’ll do just fine.” (I wish some past line managers had taken that advice literally but hey ho, you work with the cards you’re dealt.) So, on paper at least, I should hate networking events.
Yet I love them. I have no trouble walking into a room full of strangers, going up to someone with a big smile plastered on my face and introducing myself. I know for some people that’s the equivalent of getting into a boxing ring with Lennox Lewis and saying “punch me”. But for me, having networking meetings in my diary is something that I look forward to immensely.
Work, but not work
When I launched my SEO and copywriting business in the summer of 2017, I realised that meeting new people and talking about myself would be key to getting my name out there as an expert in my line of work. And, truth be told, I missed some aspects of going to work every day. Such as being with like-minded colleagues, chatting with people by the coffee machine, sharing war-stories over a sandwich and learning from others.
So if I wasn’t going to send myself stir-crazy looking out the window of the spare bedroom that doubles as my office day in day out, with the highlight of my week watching my neighbour wash out his wheelie bin, I knew I had to leave the house from time to time.
That’s where networking saved me. The temptation in the early days was to throw myself at every local networking group and beg to be allowed to join their gang. I visited so many meetings I teetered on the verge of being stretched far too thinly, leaving myself no time for any actual work or to develop my business proposition.
So I chose the 3 organisations that appealed to me the most, joined up, and set out my stall. And I can honestly say it’s one of the best choices I made since deciding to go it alone as a fully-fledged freelancer (some of those tests may have been correct after all, I do like to do things under my own steam).
I look forward to our monthly get-togethers. I like seeing familiar faces and catching up with how their various businesses are doing. I’ve met some of the most fascinating, creative, energetic, entrepreneurial, motivated and powerful people it’s ever been my privilege to encounter.
At every event, there’s always at least one new member, or a visitor, or a guest speaker. Some meetings are more structured than others but that suits me fine; I’d hate to be contemplating the same agenda every time and I’m all for mixing it up.
What have I learned as a self-styled “networking ninja”?
Three things mainly:
1. Keep an open mind
No two networking meetings will ever be the same. I never know who is going to be there or what new opportunities await me. That’s all part of the fun. I often strike up a conversation with someone that sparks off new ideas and opportunities I never dreamed of when first walking in the room.
2. It’s not about selling
I never expect to sign up new business on the spot, and if that did happen I’d be gobsmacked (thrilled, but still gobsmacked). Yes, you usually get the “60-second pitch” which is common to most networking events. But if you go to a networking meeting expecting to fill your order book just on the strength of that, then you’ll be disappointed.
I’ve got paid-up clients as a result (directly or indirectly) of attending networking events, and I can safely say that at least 50% of my revenue has been generated via the contacts I have made. But I don’t approach each one with securing a sale as the end goal, so any business I do get is a nice bonus.
3. Have a higher purpose
I’m not looking to increase my business card collection, or dump a load of my cards on some poor unsuspecting souls, either. I’m there to find my “people”. Individuals whose company I sincerely enjoy, with whom I have a common interest and I’d like to keep in touch with. If I come away from an event with two or three follow-up “1-2-1’s” in the diary then I consider the meeting a success. What happens after that is down to me and how I grow and nurture those relationships.
Many people are at best ambivalent about networking, and before I went solo in business I was probably one of them. But by shifting my mindset and embracing it as an opportunity I’m more excited about it and look forward to the opportunities it brings. Take that Myers Briggs!