|Tom Hanks doesn't need anyone's help. Not anymore. Occasionally, at strange hours, when the light is bad and hope is dim, you'll find the reason on cable: Bosom Buddies. It ran for 4 years, and Hanks never won an Emmy for it, but he put on that dress and everyone in town suddenly knew his name. Tom Hanks was visible.|
Think about your career. Who knows your name? Heck, how many peers even remotely understand your talents, your drive, your potential? If you're not sure, you need a publicist. Not a Hollywood type--just someone who knows you well. Someone like . . . you. What follows is an eight-step, do-it-yourself networking plan, whether you work in a colony of cubes or have your company name stenciled on your pickup. Put it into practice and watch the job offers, promotions, and clients accumulate like interest.
"Good networking is more about farming than about hunting," says Ivan R. Misner, Ph.D., author of The World's Best Known Marketing Secret. "It's about cultivating relationships with other business professionals." He used that theory when founding BNI (Business Network International; bni.com), a referral service with more than 54,000 people in all fields trading contacts around the globe. The point being, you don't track down the big elephant. You plant some tasty grass, lure him in, and let him go back and tell the rest of the herd. Then you'll have elephants in your field for years.
"People do business with people they trust," says Misner. "Until you establish trust, you're not effectively networking." Heed Tim Robbins's example in The Shawshank Redemption. With one ballsy gesture--helping the bull guard with his taxes and asking only for a few brews for his fellow inmates in return--he planted the seeds of a network that would bring him freedom.
So sow. This week, make one selfless gesture toward someone in your office, like offering an 11th-hour hand to a project team on deadline. Then repeat every week for a month. That's four seeds scattered, four trusts gained. Just remember . . .
Don't help just anyone; who are the four people in your company (or industry, if you're self-employed) who need to know you? This roster is different for every field, says Misner, but some classics never fade: your boss's boss, a key human-resources contact, the guy who organizes the corporate golf tournament. Look for opportunities that play to your strengths. To get the ball rolling, simply use what Misner calls the four magic words: "How can I help?"
What if the tollbooth guy collected business cards instead of quarters? How many contacts would he have in an hour? The best networkers have mastered this philosophy. "Put yourself in the doorway that potential clients will naturally walk through," says Lynne Waymon, owner of ContactsCount.com. She tells the story of a 28-year-old financial planner who specialized in retirement strategies. He took up ballroom dancing and met so many 40- to 50-year-olds that his doorway quickly became jammed. Where do your potential targets congregate?
Networking gurus call them symbiotic or synergistic relationships: You partner with a compatible, noncompetitive peer and exploit each other shamelessly for mutual benefit. "Put a lawyer, CPA, financial planner, and banker in a room for an hour and they're going to do business," says Misner. So if you're a plumber, every contractor, electrician, and building inspector in town should know how good you are. If they don't, why not?
They're the Three Deadly Sins of networking. The prideful guy scoffs at using contacts for blatant ladder-climbing. He's going to make it on his own, damn it. "Those people end up in the unemployment line," says Misner. "Very few people become successful in a vacuum." As for shyness and fear, they can cripple otherwise ambitious, talented people. But even if you're shy, says Waymon, "you can learn a few networking skills that you can turn on at any given moment." She cites film director Mike Nichols (The Graduate), who refers to himself as a "site-specific extrovert." To shyproof yourself in social situations, prepare yourself to answer the two inevitable questions:
"What do you do?" Too many people take a humble approach: "Oh, I'm a CPA." Show love for your work--there's a difference between bragging and branding. "First, give them your best talent or skill," says Waymon. "Then tell them a time when you saved the day, solved the problem, or served the client." And everyone, no matter what he does, has a story. A better answer: "I'm a CPA. I negotiate with the IRS." They say, "Wow, that sounds like a tough racket." You say, "It can be, but last year I convinced Uncle Sam that my client's horse farm was a business, not a hobby." You've suddenly become one sexy CPA.
"How are you?" (a.k.a. "What's new?") This query usually elicits chitchat about blown saves and rain delays, which accomplishes nada. Waymon recommends answering with "gives and gets"--what you can give them ("I hear you need more office space") and what you'd like to get ("I'm looking for a new assistant"). This approach makes for a rich conversation. Plus, you now have a reason to follow up later.
Too many contacts languish in our PalmPilots. Every Friday for the next 6 months, schedule a quick phone call to someone you should have spoken to in the past 6 months. Yes, schedule it. Otherwise you won't do it. Neglect is the turf toe of a networking plan--even if it doesn't end your career, it'll certainly slow you down. "Remember," says Misner, "it's not net-sit or net-eat. It's network."
Misner's team recently asked 2,000 business pros if they were satisfied with the number of referrals they receive. Eighty percent said no. Then they were asked whether they gave any kind of gift or thank-you when they received a referral. Only 20 percent said yes. "I don't know about you," says Misner, "but that feels like a possible correlation." Thank-yous take different forms--a handwritten note, a lunch, a beer, a small freebie--but each goes a long way toward cementing a business relationship. Misner sums it up with two words: "Givers gain."