Don’t Be That Person — The Entrepreneur’s Manual To Genuine Networking
The latest in a new series about ethics, etiquette and heart
By James A O’Rourke
Editor’s Note: This networking edition is the first in a new series called, “Don’t Be That Person,” which aims to inspire us all to be better humans, working together for the good of the community.
I don’t have much of a formal education past high school, so I am by definition a self-taught entrepreneur. I do a ton of research in all things business, and over the past 14 years at the head of my company, I’ve learned a thing or two — sometimes the hard way.
It took me a long time, for example, to realize it’s almost always wiser to distill things down to their basic elements. Don’t get too caught up in making the perfect decision or doing things at the right time. Instead, spend that time really thinking about how you want to run things. Then make a decision about your core values and stay the course. Keep it simple, genuine and, when it comes to marketing, memorable. Truthfully, this single nugget of wisdom is the lesson I wish someone taught me, especially before I started actively networking.
Once you decide how you want to do things, it’s time to tell the world about it. This is when your network begins to influence your net worth. A powerful, effective network is crucial to a successful business and to your life in general — more so now than ever before. On a daily basis, we interact with hundreds of people, digitally and in person. It’s in your and their best interest to cooperate with and support each other. This kind of camaraderie can open doors to career-making opportunities and long-term growth.
In fact, effective networking can make all the difference. It can connect you with people who can solve problems and accomplish tasks outside your reach. It can help build brand awareness and give your company a face people can relate to. Done effectively, it can establish professional relationships and friendships, as well as build trust and credibility.
The benefits of networking could be as simple as finding that cup of sugar from a neighbor if you suddenly find yourself in need of it. People often separate their personal and professional lives, thinking of it as networking at work and socializing at home. But in my opinion, it’s interconnected, and it’s advantageous to think of it that way.
There are multiple avenues to effective networking, as well. The most traditional approach is to attend events, conferences, seminars, luncheons and group meetings. In Santa Clarita, volunteering is a also a great way of networking with community leaders. If you prefer a more personal approach, coffee or dinner and drinks might be a great way to get to know someone. And today, there’s a whole world of digital interactions through social media, chat rooms, dating sites and so on.
If you’re an outgoing person who loves to be out and about mingling with people, you may find networking comes somewhat naturally. If you’re an introvert like me, networking can prove to be nerve-racking and stressful. Nevertheless, if you want to get ahead in business, you will need to build and nurture a healthy network. Considering you have a plethora of avenues to choose from, I would go with what best suits your temperament. On one hand, I don’t recommend staying strictly within your social comfort zone, but you also don’t need to participate in events you absolutely hate just to build a solid network.
A few years back, I decided to start actively networking and I’ve managed to build a very powerful network. I now brush shoulders with some of the best and brightest, not to mention wealthiest, people in town. I’ve tripled my net worth, and I no longer have to wait in lines because I get the VIP treatment wherever I go. Did you know Facebook only allows 5,000 friends? I maxed out on that years ago, and I have more followers than Jesus on my Instagram account. I’m at the point where I don’t associate with anyone unless that relationship benefits me greatly. My point is: I’m kinda a big deal. So if you want to build a powerful network, you better listen up!
How annoying and off-putting was that last paragraph? Hopefully you kept reading long enough to realize I was joking, to drive home my final and most important point: There is definitely a wrong way and a right way to network. Being self-absorbed, selfish, arrogant and braggadocious is NOT the way to win support and build a network.
Don’t be that person!
Here are the Dos and Don’ts Of Genuine Networking.
- Present yourself well! Show up well dressed and groomed with an enthusiastic attitude and a smile on your face. Don’t be that person with sweaty armpits and bad breath. Don’t be that person with a poor attitude either. Successful people like to associate with others who take their commitments seriously and exude positive energy.
- Have your elevator pitch down to a science. Inevitably, you’re going to be asked what you do for a living, so be ready to answer that question in an interesting, clever and concise manner — and always follow up with the same question in return.
- Ask and then listen. Do not zone out and think of the next thing you’re going to say. If you genuinely listen to what people are saying, you will learn more, and the next question or comment will come to you naturally. Most people like to talk about themselves and their ambitions, so ask questions that genuinely get to know them better. When you take an interest in someone, you’re inadvertently strengthening the connection and making a stronger first impression.
- Have well designed and professional business cards ready. This may seem like a no-brainer, but many people forget this one. Yet, in most cases, this is the easiest way to get connected with someone. If someone asks for your card, always be polite and ask for a card in return.
- Always follow up. There is no point in networking if you aren’t going to solidify the new connection with a follow-up of some kind. For starters, connect with them on social media and support their accounts and pages. Just be sure to follow up in a manner that’s not self-serving, as well. Look for ways to serve and add value first.
- Always follow through. Whenever you make contacts at a networking event, do what you promised to do.
- Give, give, give and give some more. You should be constantly looking for ways to help others and give back to your community. You can offer free information, advice, help, favors, connections, etc. Donating a little of your time to support a good cause is always a great way to build a network of good people who follow through.
- Just be yourself. Don’t pretend to be anything you’re not. Don’t pretend to be more successful, wealthy, powerful or connected than you really are. Don’t be that person! It comes across as fake and inauthentic, and most people can spot it a mile away. Faking it until you make it does NOT work with your personality, beliefs or accomplishments.
- Carry yourself with confidence, even if you don’t feel like it. Stand tall and be sure of yourself — even if you don’t feel like it just yet. People want to do business with confident people. Remember, you have just as much right to play this game called life. Take up some space, work hard, and do the right thing. Let your confidence derive from that!
- Stay connected. Sometimes staying in touch becomes natural, and other times you have to actively find and schedule ways to stay connected. Send a friendly email or text. Mail a handwritten note or letter. Give them a call. Ask them out to coffee, lunch or dinner. Invite them over and attend their events. There are tons of ways to stay connected with your network. It just requires effort.
- Pick up the tab. If at all possible, be the one who pays the tab. This lets people know you’re wealthy and in charge. Just kidding. But it is the friendly and professional thing to do.
- Go an inch wide and a mile deep. This is a big one for me. I have zero interest in building a vast network. I’m more concerned with building a solid network made up of the right people. Take your time to really get to know people. Nourish and cultivate the relationships you already have. Constantly looking for new connections without taking the time to build solid relationships serves little purpose in the long-run.
- Be patient. Remember this takes time. Building a powerful network is literally a lifelong process. Focus on doing the right thing and supporting others, and in due time, you will also benefit from your network. There will come a day when you need a favor, and your network will be more than happy to oblige because you’ve given so much upfront.
- Trust, but verify and be cautious. I had to learn this the hard way. In my youth, I trusted easy and gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. In short, I was a sucker who got taken advantage of. Move slowly with new connections, especially if no one in your network has already spoken for their character. Pay attention to what people do and say. Actions speak louder than words, my friend.
- Be open-minded — but not so open-minded that your brain falls out. You never know what could come of a new connection or opportunity. No one has it all figured out, and there’s always something new to learn. Just choose your opportunities wisely.
- Don’t be shy. For some, this is easier said than done, but you must get out of your comfort zone and meet new people if you want to expand your network. Don’t fall back on talking to people you already know. You aren’t the only shy one who’s struggling to connect.
- Don’t be selfish and self-centered. Constant self-promotion will only repel and annoy people. It’s not all about you; in fact, it’s mostly about helping others and always about forming mutually beneficial partnerships.
- Don’t get drunk. Yes, a light buzz will grease the wheels, but getting obnoxiously drunk is unprofessional and unproductive.
- Don’t ask for favors the first few times you meet someone. Focus on building the relationship and helping first.
- Don’t be overly opinionated or unprofessional online. I’m not suggesting you filter out your personality and feelings, nor do I think you should project a false image of yourself. But some things are best kept private. Unless you make a living off your opinion or have a hyper-targeted strategy, keep religion, politics and hot-button issues to yourself or within your trusted, inner circle.
- Don’t limit your network. Expand your network to include professionals at varying experience levels, not just your peers. Look outside your industry for potential contacts. You never know who might have the right connections.
- Don’t give up. Don’t call any relationship a loss because they aren’t able to help you right now. Networking is first and foremost about building relationships — not about what you can get. Maintain your network, be grateful for your contacts, and your attitude will ultimately lead to open doors.
- Don’t treat it like a numbers game. Seek real connections with the right people, rather than seeing how many business cards you can stack up.
- Don’t be a poor tipper and or skip out on your bill. Seriously. Instead, focus on contributing more than you think you need to.
- Don’t be sleazy. Don’t hit on the opposite sex. A little innocent flirting may be permissible, depending on the situation. (This is one way your professional and personal worlds may become interconnected.) If you’re interested in a romantic way, simply ask the person out without expecting anything or being pushy. Don’t kiss and tell. Don’t be unprofessional because of a current or past relationship. And always respect a person’s privacy and boundaries. Uninvited physical contact, groping or comments in poor taste are never acceptable.
- Don’t gossip or bad mouth people behind their back. This is one I see all the time, and it drives me crazy. If someone is talking badly about a mutual friend or associate, you can bet they’re doing the same thing to you. Full disclosure — we’re all human and cross the line from “venting” into gossiping during a heated moment. I catch myself doing this from time to time, but I try my best to be compassionate and fair when thinking about other people.
- Try not to be overly judgemental or stereotype people. Why did I chose the term “overly judgemental?” The fact is all humans makes judgements and form stereotypes. It serves a purpose, and it’s just part of being human. It’s when your judgements cross the line into being unreasonable or unfounded that it becomes a bad thing for everyone involved. Assuming someone is a bad person because they’re a Raiders fan, for example, is reasonable. Assuming someone is poor because of how they’re dressed, however, is unreasonable. You never know the whole story, so make your judgements with compassion and discernment.
- Don’t overlook social media. This is something some of the the old-school business folks tend to miss. But today, social media networking is a crucial component of a successful networking strategy. Build a solid profile on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and any other platform that will help you effectively connect with others. And just because we take communication to the digital world doesn’t mean we forget our principles or human decency. All the same rules apply, whether you’re talking on Facebook or face-to-face.
At the end of the day, business is about people — understanding them, working with them and supporting them. That’s why it’s so important to meet people and nurture those relationships. You can’t do business without them. And your neighbors can’t do business without you.
Networking gives you a chance to make a difference in other businesses and lives, in your community and in your own home. It can open up your professional circle and take your reach to new heights or new depths. It’s how your business comes to really mean something to the people and community it serves. And there’s no reason for it to feel like a phony, intimidating or dreaded task on your to-do list. All you have to do is follow your code of ethics and be yourself. The rest is up to you. You can make networking anything you want it be but going about it in a self serving and unprofessional manner is never permissible so please Don’T Be That Person!