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How to Build a Powerful Network That Could Include Nelson Mandela

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What do you do when you want to launch a new business, grow an existing one or make a giant leap into another career? You do what any good entrepreneur would do; start building a network. This is a short ‘how to’ guide for starting a new network or growing the one you already have.

There are several ways to build your network. Let’s talk about two categories common to entrepreneurs. The first is building a network to grow within your current business. The second category is starting fresh in a new business or industry. Both of these categories share similarities and I’m sure in the right situation are entirely interchangeable. One of the greatest joys of being an entrepreneur is creating and maintaining your network. Some of the most successful and fulfilled people I know have a powerful network of family, friends, associates and other contacts. It follows that the most successful businesses have the strongest networks. A good friend of my family always said proudly that in his fifteen years of being in business, he had only lost one client, “…but that was our choice, not theirs!” he’d add. When asked how he managed to keep his clients for so long, he told us that he really cared about their businesses and made sure he spoke to them often about how he could help them improve. He understood the principles of networking very well. “Share your time and knowledge, and offer your help,” he said. “And always be compassionate towards your clients.”

Creating Momentum in an Existing Network

Become a master of your trade. Learning all there is to know about your industry or business may be impossible, but most of us have the ability to master the basics and keep current on the most relevant matters. This is important if you are going to try to create a reciprocal network of people to work with. You need to understand how your business works, who your market is and what the factors that influence success and failure are. What this does not mean, is that you become a ‘know-it-all’ who can’t wait to interrupt others with your version of the day’s news. Becoming a master of your trade allows you to make better decisions about, not only who needs to be part of your network, but also what knowledge you need in order to be able to include yourself in positive communications. Interesting people are often included in senior discussions, asked to deliver workshops and are frequently invited to speak at seminars.

This is not as difficult as you might think it is. Initially, it will take some time to gather the necessary knowledge required to feel confident about speaking with others about your area of expertise. After essentially blundering into a position some years ago, I found myself not knowing much about the industry I was working in. I realized that my good luck would run out soon if I didn’t demonstrate to the rest of the team that I actually knew what was going on in our segment of the market. For about 6 weeks, I would go into the office about an hour early to read every newsletter, article and book I could find on our industry. Gathering this information soon paid off. After just two months with the company, I was delivering informational workshops to our partners, vendors, journalists and even the company’s Board of Directors. This put me in touch with hundreds of new people every month, and my network grew from nearly zero, to over a thousand contacts in less than a year.

Share your knowledge actively. Giving of yourself will always bring positive results. Sharing your knowledge or wisdom is one of the greatest ways we can give to others.

In one of my first jobs, I was fortunate enough to have a boss who lived by the principle,”If you want to succeed, make sure you help everyone around you succeed, as well.” As I was still new to the industry, this individual went out of her way to send me interesting articles and highlighted sections in books and magazines that she knew would help me to get acclimated. Well, not only did it help me, but I soon caught the bug and began forwarding great news pieces and dropping interesting articles on others’ desks. It was amazing how many good things happened from this simple form of knowledge-sharing. In one particular case, I started a magazine exchange with a very bright senior consultant who worked for a big broadcast company that shared our office building. This constant exchange brought us closer and years later, he accepted the position of CEO for a media company I had founded.

The important part of idea sharing, is making it relevant. Nobody wants to receive more junk mail or spam, so only pass along information that is relevant to the recipient. It might be really interesting for you, but might not hit the same buttons for the other guy. Keep connecting on the basis of shared interest and in the interest of sharing knowledge.

Starting from Scratch

So, what happens when you are so new to your industry that you don’t know anyone or anything? Maybe you have decided to take a giant leap into a new area to follow your heart. A friend of mine recently gave up the responsibilities of running a large advertising agency to start a new career as a psychologist. She had no experience or education in psychology, so it would mean starting at the very bottom and working hard to get back to the top. Or maybe you are starting your first career and are wondering how you can accelerate the network-building process.

First, ask for help. This is not only a good way to make new friends, but it’s also the best way to increase your knowledge. The knowledge that you desire can generally be gathered by asking those who have it to share with you. This is often a misunderstood concept and I frequently hear peoples’ disbelief at the idea that someone else would openly share their knowledge with them. After all, isn’t intellectual capital the thing we prize the most? The truth is, most people love to talk about themselves. What’s even more exciting is that successful people are the ones that are most willing to give advice or share some interesting information with others.

My favorite method of asking for help is to write ‘advice letters’ to successful people. I start the letters by acknowledging their achievements and my interest in imitating their rise to the top. I ask for their advice on how to reach the level of success they have achieved. Once I’ve received a positive response, which never fails to arrive, I sometimes give them a very short introduction to my business and ask if they know of anybody else that they think I should meet with that might help me further. This last step is really important if you are serious about developing a significant network. It creates momentum for your network by taking your connections to levels you would not be able to reach alone. Using this method, it is quite possible to reach even the highest levels of our corporate and sociopolitical organizations. I even heard of a case where a young boy used the ‘advice letter’ technique to reach Nelson Mandela…and received a personal response!

Return the favor by offering your help or expertise. We all have something to give, some talent or skill that is useful to others. At the soonest opportunity, offer your help to the person you receive advice or help from. Think about it as a kind of barter or exchange where you present your gifts in exchange for the gifts you have already received. A friend of mine is a creative director who works from home and enjoys the luxury of going to yoga a couple of times a week. He arranged to do some graphic design and marketing work for the yoga studio in return for free classes. Whether your new contact chooses your services or not, doesn’t really matter. It’s more important to make yourself available to your contact as gratitude for their help. It shows people that you aren’t just taking and are willing to give back.

My friend who started a new career as a psychologist, volunteered to work on the telephone help lines for a support group. After receiving a short course in counseling, she was able to really help people on the help lines and was given first-hand experience in therapy work.

I recently changed career paths and found myself requiring the services of an executive coach. I interviewed several candidates and was about to commit to one particularly brilliant coach, when an opportunity for an exchange came up. The coach needed some marketing advice and asked if I would be willing to trade coaching hours for marketing expertise. The prospect of getting free coaching for a few hours of my time was too good to pass up, so I accepted immediately.

Introduce your contacts to each other. This is the yeast in the network cake. By introducing your contacts to one another, they connect their networks and share information. This helps the network expand in quantum leaps, which is something that can’t be achieved by one-on-one networking alone.

A word of caution: When introducing your contacts or associates, think carefully about why you are introducing them to one another. Make sure you are not just setting up meetings for the sake of making connections. Successful people are generally smart and busy, so don’t waste their time by putting them in contact with each other without some clear reason for doing so. Also, don’t feel it necessary to chaperone the meetings. Once you have identified the commonality and made the introduction, you should back off. Whether these people hit it off or not will be entirely up to them.

A few years ago, I was dealing with two large clients who, once we had looked at their business strategies, appeared to have plenty in common. I arranged a meeting between them, but made the mistake of thinking I needed to be in the boardroom when they met. I honestly thought the meeting would go better if I hung out while they talked. The meeting did go well, but afterwards, as we walked to our cars, my client admitted to me that he felt uncomfortable having me in the room. He said he felt that he couldn’t speak openly with the other party because he kept on wondering if I had some other agenda by eavesdropping on the conversation.

Final Lesson

The most important thing you can do to grow your network, is also the hardest. It is what makes relationships stick because it is the glue that keeps people talking and sharing, time and time again.

The lesson is that you have to listen. If you can listen, really listen, you’ll be surprised by how many people will want to connect with you, again and again. When you ask people how they are, wait to hear their response before you open your mouth to tell them your side of the story. In meetings, listen to what people say and to what they don’t say. Try to develop your natural talent for listening and watching. Be aware of what people are asking you to do. If you listen to what they are really asking you for, you will be better equipped to give them what they need. That makes them happy and keeps the connection strong. In his book, Love is the Killer App, Tim Sanders reminds us to, “Be prepared. Business offers us constant contact with other people, but how often do we have a chance to show some compassion during that contact?” So always show some compassion during your contacts and I guarantee you that something good will happen.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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