There is a proverb in some of the East African cultures to the effect that ‘show me your friends, and I will tell you your character’. Others say ‘birds of the same feathers flock together’. So the rich flock with the rich, corporate types flock with corporate types and well, laggards flock with laggards. People tend to identify with those with whom they share the same economic status or better. What is true for folklore is also true for business. The story of many business successes is filled with amazing coincidences and opportunities that entrepreneurs chanced upon and made good.
Greet thy neighbor
One successful entrepreneur always narrates the story of how he ended becoming a representative of a large multinational company involved in the import of a multitude of fast-moving goods between Uganda and China. While traveling on Emirates Airlines to Shanghai, he was involuntarily upgraded to business class where he chanced upon a representative of one of the large trading houses. Having to sit together for nine hours from Dubai to Shanghai meant that they had to start a conversation so as to while away the hours. And so began his journey to success based on this chance meeting. Of course, it took more than the perfunctory conversation and exchange of business cards to get the business going. Once he had the contact, the next thing was to arrange to visit and place some orders. After about a year nurturing this relationship, he was able to access suppliers’ credit, which the trading house provided, and this enabled him to receive goods on consignment.
Business networking is about establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with other business people and potential clients and/or customers. A business network is a type of social network whose raison de étre is business relationships. Networking is also a socioeconomic activity by which groups of like-minded entrepreneurs recognize, create, or act upon business opportunities. There are several well-known business networking organizations that create wealth because of the connectedness of the members of these networks. These go by different names. Some people refer to them as investment clubs, others call them safety nets and the like. But if you are part of such a network and get to meet many influential people, it is only natural that you leverage such relationships. Many business people contend business networking is a more efficient method of generating new business than advertising or public relations efforts. This is because business networking is a low-cost activity that involves more personal commitment and offers a promise of profit.
Business networking can be conducted in a local business community, or on a larger scale via the Internet. Business networking websites have grown over recent years due to the Internet’s ability to connect people from all over the world. Internet companies often set up business leads for sale to bigger corporations and companies looking for data sources. As an example, a business network may agree to meet weekly or monthly with the purpose of exchanging business leads and referrals with fellow members. To complement this activity, members often meet outside this circle, on their own time, and build their own one-to-one relationship with the fellow member. One of the most well known social networking groups of our time is Rotary International. Despite its philanthropic disposition, it provides tremendous potential for the members to exchange notes and ideas and plan deals.
In today’s business world where decisions are made ‘@ the speed of light’, networking has become very important and therefore it needs to be approached with a strategic view. This involves working at creating relationships with spheres of influence. Strategic networkers know that a positive word about them from one of these key players carries a lot of weight and influence. Bill Gates has spoken of a trilogy of trust – the trust that one person has in another that is then passed on to the third party. For example, James knows, likes and trusts Leah, who knows likes and trusts John. Based on this two-way trust, James will be open to discussions or possible connections with John, even though John has never previously had contact with James.
Profit from your networks
The phenomenon has now extended beyond business into social and political spheres. With Internet applications like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Skype, information is becoming more easily accessible but only if you are in the right network! So for a budding entrepreneur, what are the benefits that you need to appreciate to be networked?
First is to understand that information equals money! To be networked helps one to be ‘the first’ to know. Being the first to know means that you invest when the idea is on an upward trend, not when it is in decline. So you get to earn pioneer profits and recoup your investment quickly. Second is you avoid the ‘herd’ mentality – that belief that I am doing this because everybody is doing it! You don’t want to be pounded by the migrating herd, because such groupthink can be quite disastrous. So networking helps you avoid the herd if you know what to look for. Thirdly is you can be strategic. Because you get to know first, you can always think before you act. You also have so many ideas on your plate you learn to be cautious and can make plans that are probably going to have a better chance of success.
Now that you know the benefits, how do you get networked? For most of us, the easiest way is also the most unavailable. But truth be told, if you are born in the right family, you are on your way to success. Unfortunately, we cannot offer much help on this one, because you cannot choose your parents. But it helps to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth! Many people born in rich families also run the risk of ending up spoilt brats! They can hardly do anything for themselves and think the world owes them a living. So there is a huge upside to this option, but the downside can also be devastating.
You can belong to a club of peers or people whom you think are upwardly mobile and will help give you a leg up. As we said at the beginning of this article, if you choose your friends carefully, you are bound to be successful. While you cannot choose your family, you can choose your friends. So why choose failures? Come on, go find yourself some successful people who are going to places and get a life. No reason for you to choose laggards if you want to make it in this world which severely punishes failure. As you choose your friends, also think of the health and social clubs you frequent, the travel class you book into and the other choices you make. Do they help you be networked? For instance, going out to socialize at the Serena (an upscale Kampala hotel), costs a bomb, but think of the people with whom you will rub shoulders. On the other hand, you could hang out in Kabalagala (one of Kampala suburbs) since you are not going to amount to much anyway! The beer is cheap, and so is the conversation!
Lastly, good grooming is important if you want members of your network to trust and cotton onto you (no pun intended)! It is amazing how well-groomed people are easily accepted. The adage that ‘the man in a better suit gets a better deal’ comes to mind here. So spend some money on your dress, and grooming. Crop your hair close, and keep your nails cut. Nothing is as off-putting as a man with overgrown nails or a lady with artificial ones! Even with jobs, better-looking people are more likely to succeed at interviews because of how they are perceived and received. And so it is with networks. You get easily accepted if you are easy on the eye and have some valuable input to make to the lives of others. So what are you doing reading this? Go out and be wired into one of those successful networks!
In her famous book, The Power of Networks, Robyn Henderson explains the basic principles of networking:
- The law of abundance. There are plenty of opportunities for everyone – plenty of ideas, clients, customers, jobs and so on. Just because your diary is empty does not mean that there are no opportunities around. Great networkers believe in an abundance of opportunities.
- The law of reciprocity. What you give out comes back tenfold. If you give out help, you get back help; give out love, you get back to love; give out information, you get back information. The challenge, of course, is that although for you the giving is instant and in the short term, the receiving may not happen for some time. Also, what is returned may not come from the person to whom it was given. However, great networkers believe firmly that what you give out comes back tenfold.
- The law of giving without expectation. This occurs when you give without any expectation of receiving something. You do something for someone not to get something back, but because you want to help them achieve their goal.
A great social networker, Robyn advises “great networkers also make heart-to-heart connections with people when they talk to them. They listen with their hearts as well as their ears – they are totally focused on the person in front them, regardless of whether they think that person could be a prospect, client, new friend or just someone to add to their network. They realize that every person they connect with forms part of their networking jigsaw, and every stranger has the potential to become an important connection within that network.” Great networkers network ethically, professionally and courteously – aware that every best friend was once a perfect stranger, and that you never know who that stranger in front of you actually has in their network. The basic philosophy of great networkers is to treat everyone the way they would like to be treated.
The more people you know, the more people you can influence, either positively or negatively. People who work at developing strong clusters of networks across a broad cross-section of interests, age groups, demographics, and cultures can often wield enormous positive or negative influence. These people are often referred to as master networkers and spheres of influence.
One of the challenges in our time-poor society is that many of us can’t be bothered investing the time required to work at and create new networks. It is so much easier and a great time saver to stick to the networks that we know and feel comfortable with. Our comfort zone becomes very safe and non-threatening. However, it is also very limiting and the potential for influencing large numbers is almost nonexistent – unless our smaller networkers are themselves filled with key spheres of influence who can network on our behalf.
Here below, are Robyn’s ten habits for becoming a networker of influence
- Understand that networking is a life skill, not something you do only when you want something from someone else.
- Value your networks. Realize that every member forms part of the jigsaw of life and you never know where people will turn up later. The opinion they gain of you now can affect their future opinion of you (and the opinions of others).
- Practice making heart-to-heart connections with people when you communicate with them. Aim to be totally present and ‘in the moment’ at all times.
- Arm yourself with business cards and a nametag when you attend a networking event.
- Befriend the gatekeepers – the people who assist or sometimes protect the people you are wanting to network with (secretaries, personal assistants and so on). They will easily help you to remember the names!
- Walk your talk. Directly and indirectly, you will become a role model for others.
- Form strategic alliances based on quality, not quantity. Make sure all parties are committed before you start taking your action steps.
- Consider forming a small mastermind group, preferably with people not directly within your organization, and open yourself to new ideas and constructive feedback.
- The most powerful people are those who share information and don’t hide it from others. Always be generous with information. Being able to give a person the specific piece of information they need (no matter how trivial it may seem to you) increases your influence enormously.
- If you set out to build a strong network of people whom you admire, respect and value, the by-product will be that you will have great influence within this group. Yet if you set out to have influence without the firm foundation of a strong network of supporters you will fail and have no influence and a poor reputation.