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How to network successfully: Turning contacts into relationships

How does good networking work? Here are a few suggestions on how you can grow and strengthen your network.

Catherine Tenger
Reading time
10 minutes
Lively exchange during a networking event
"I need to introduce you to Sara": the best networkers are those who provide contacts, not just seek them out. © GettyImages/Klaus Vedfelt

Building and cultivating personal relationships is one of the key drivers of professional success. In fact, studies show that a well-cultivated network is key to creating more business opportunities, generating momentum and fresh ideas, and having more influence – whether for a good cause, a personal goal or the success of a company.

So how does good networking work? Here are a few tips.

Focus not only on the “know-how” but also the “know-who”

The truth is that networking is more than just growing your list of contacts. And that very few people consciously set aside time every day to network. But they should.

So allot a specific and regular amount of time to networking. Make contacts, connect with acquaintances, exchange information, harness synergies. And above all: do favours for people in your network. And do all of these things without a hidden agenda or expecting that you will immediately get something in return.  

Connect others

Countless examples show that people who are generous in connecting others are usually just as willingly introduced to people they would not otherwise have access to. Reciprocity is a basic social principle that has always provided fertile ground for good relationships and trust.

Surprisingly, this principle tends to be forgotten: all too often, the focus of networking activities is solely on making new, beneficial contacts for oneself. However, the best networkers are those who create contacts by bringing others together, not just seeking them out for themselves.

Networking business people
Networking is more than expanding your contact list: It's also about maintaining contacts, connecting people, being attentive and empathetic. © Shutterstock

How can you do this? One way is to listen carefully to people’s small talk. For example, if someone mentions wanting to start their own business one day, ask yourself whether you know someone who has experience with that. If you do, ask both people if they would be interested in getting to know each other. If they both say yes, connect them – whether in person, through e-mail or on LinkedIn – and let them take care of the rest.

Help others and ask for favours

Make it a daily habit to think about who you could do something good for. And if someone asks you for support, give it to them if you can. With a little patience, your good turn will come back to you in one way or another. People don’t generally forget when they have been given an opportunity or received help – and at some point, when it’s important to you, you will be able to ask for a favour without having any moral qualms.

When that time comes, get to the point quickly and don’t hesitate. The longer you hold back with your request during the conversation, the more likely you are to run the risk of that conversation taking a different direction. Plus, you won’t really be listening, because in the back of your mind you’ll be busy trying to find the right moment to bring up the favour.

Use the strength of weak ties

The value of so-called weak ties is often underestimated. When it comes to networking, we tend to forget people with whom we are not so familiar or with whom we have irregular and infrequent contact. Yet it is precisely these relationships that can often be more helpful to us professionally than our closest friends: from a social and psychological perspective, most of the people we form strong bonds with are similar to us. Getting to know them is easy and being with them is so pleasant because they share our values and are often in a similar life situation.

However, when it comes to getting fresh input, new opportunities and access to different ways of thinking, we’re better off if we interact with people we don’t see as often, who are not as similar to us, and who don’t know the same things or people as we do. A network can be career-enhancing if the majority of the people in it are not from the same industry, seniority level, stakeholder group or of the same age and gender.

Talking colleagues at an office
The strength of weak relationships: It is often people with whom we have little contact who can be most helpful to us professionally. © GettyImages/Luis Alvarez

Manage your contact list

Make a list of private, professional and overlapping contacts. Keep a record of when and where you met these people, what you did and talked about, and what the next steps are, if any. Also jot down who introduced you. Because those people are your intermediaries and they’re important! They also need nurturing.

Don’t sell yourself – win people over

It’s easy to fall into the networking trap of selling yourself. However, most people, regardless of whether they are on their favourite social media site or at a networking event, are not looking to buy anything. So instead of talking insistently to people, have interesting conversations. The best way to sell yourself is to be the best version of yourself (not a walking sales pitch). This means knowing what you stand for, what you are capable of and what you want to be valued for.

The true meaning of networking

Networking is any activity that helps increase the value of the entire network of relationships – not just for you. In other words, by actively ensuring that others benefit from their relationship with you, you stand the best chance of also being rewarded by your network over time. So take a long-term approach to nurturing your network – don’t just reach out when you need it.

About the author

Catherine Tenger provides training and gives seminars on presentation skills and communication. She is the author of Format, a book about the qualities that make people charismatic and engaging, and how these can be developed.

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