Much is written on the subject of networking. Hardly surprising, as it’s fundamental to any business. It’s an investment which can return massive dividends. On the other hand, get it wrong and it becomes a fantastic way of wasting valuable time. So, how do you ensure you get the most out of networking? There are numerous methods to building a good network of worthwhile, genuine contacts and all effective networkers will go about things in various ways. For what it’s worth, here are a few pointers which I have picked up.

Learn from those who are already good at it!

As a legal recruitment consultant in Manchester, one of the UK’s busiest legal and financial markets, networking is an integral part of the job. Yes, many candidates approach us through advertising, but in order to be truly successful in placing the best people in the best law jobs, you have to be good at developing relationships. I like to think I’ve developed my own style, but in truth, my own skills have been sharpened and honed through experience and by watching others who are already experts.

So, I suppose, my first piece of advice is pay attention and learn from those who are already good at networking. By all means, go to an event, a golf day, a business lunch, or get on the phone, but always take note from those who do it well. You can glean a lot from watching a good networker… as well as a bad one.

Adopt the right mindset

Firstly, let’s deal with this rather stale term, ‘networking’. When people think of networking, they often think of a networking event – a room full of suits and name tags picking at canapes, some nervously kicking their heels, whilst others fiercely ‘work the room’. In reality, networking can happen anywhere at all – your gym, running club, down the local pub or at your best friend’s wedding.

Indeed, some of my best, long-standing contacts have not come about through networking in the stereotypical sense of the word. Networking is just a corporate term we use to commercialise an initial meeting, designed or intended to lead to a particular business end – in most cases, a sale, an instruction or a fee.

The important thing about networking is the mindset. Networking is not about ‘working’ people, it’s about meeting people, listening to them, being genuinely interested in them and /or what they’re doing and trying, if possible, to help them. In other words, it’s about developing relationships.

Wherever you are and whatever you do, always be aware that your next business opportunity could come from the most unlikely of places. I’m not saying everyone is a potential business target. Just be open to talking to people and finding out what they’re about. If you keep that mindset, you’ll always be open to opportunities and, most importantly, you’ll enjoy it.

Put time aside / be organised

The people who are best at developing meaningful relationships always find a way of spending time with people they know and meeting people they don’t. Whether it’s a five-minute phone call, a breakfast seminar or a full-on corporate event, they always manage to balance this with their day-to-day business activities. More often than not, they are efficient and good time-keepers. They don’t just attend any event. They take a look at it, work out whether it is worth their while and probably have a good idea on who they wish to meet before they attend.

Making time to meet new people and develop relationships is crucial if you work in the legal jobs market in Manchester. But even if your role is not so directly sales-related, putting some time aside to widen your sphere of contacts is still very important. It’s easy to stagnate behind your desk and forget about the relevance of networking. Don’t. It’s just as significant for your overall department or practice area as it is for your own personal development.

A note on attending networking events

If you find yourself at a networking event, or some other situation where there is the opportunity to meet people and possibly develop new relationships – say a business lunch or an afternoon at the cricket – the first thing to do is chill out! You don’t need to speak to everyone in the room or throw your business card around like confetti.

Instead, spend time getting to know one or two people properly. Find out about them, see what makes them tick. Get them on a subject they enjoy talking about and make them feel at ease. I always think that business cards should be exchanged once rapport has been established. It is also far more important to receive the business card rather than to hand them out.

The ‘follow-up’

Most people know the importance of following-up on a first meeting. The problem is, it very quickly peters out after that. I’m sure we’ve all regularly received an email from people who we’ve met at some event or function the day before. For a brief moment, they come back into our minds, before they are quickly forgotten in the haze of a busy day.

The most important thing to remember about a follow-up is it is not a one-off event. People who are good at meeting people and forging genuine relationships are generally good at keeping in touch. This doesn’t mean giving them a call every month or even setting up a coffee. It can be something as simple as dropping that person a line when you read an article about them in the business press or their company receives a useful piece of exposure. Or perhaps you come across a piece of market information, which may be useful to them.

Always remember that social media is a good way of doing this, though a personal message every now and then is certainly to be encouraged.  Obviously, there is no substitute for meeting someone face-to face, but this may not always be possible, so remember there are other ways to keep in someone’s mind.

Social media

With so many social media vehicles, it can be difficult to keep track of them all and know which ones are worth pursuing and how to use them in the most efficient way possible. To be honest, I’m probably not the best example of someone who makes good use of social media, not in relation to work anyway. But here are a few observations for what it’s worth.

Linkedin – Linkedin can be a valuable tool in helping to raise profile and building up a useful network of contacts. Nevertheless, it can be over-utilised in ways that may prove counter-productive. Just as indiscriminate business card spamming is often pointless (and irritating), so too is the practice of linking-in with anyone who will accept your invitation to connect. You should only really connect with someone you know and someone who is, in some way, of relevance. Furthermore, how often do you review your 500+ contacts? Try and get into the habit of going through them all every now and then. Who knows, you may pick up some useful leads.

Twitter – Depending on how active a given contact is on Twitter, this could be quite a useful way of keeping in touch. That said, don’t get obsessed with it. It’s simply another tool in your relationship building arsenal.

Other ways of developing relationships

As I mentioned, relationship-building isn’t something that needs be confined to a prescribed, networking event. Often, such events can feel quite stilted and forced. So, if you don’t feel comfortable in the traditional networking environment, try creating your own.

When I was a junior associate solicitor, I started a curry club with one of the major accountancy firms we regularly worked with. We met once a month and everyone brought someone along (usually a friend who worked in another area of professional services eg property or banking) who enjoyed a beer and a curry on a Friday lunchtime. It was a great way to meet new people in a far more comfortable and relaxed setting.

However, if you don’t tend to enjoy something spicy why not try to start something else. A real ale club or cocktail society perhaps. Alternatively, you might choose to get involved in your company’s CSR program.

In short, there are a myriad of different ways to hone your relationship building skills, but the key thing is to approach it in the right way. The best relationship builders are those who are ultimately interested in people. If you approach relationship building with a gregarious attitude, a genuine character and a bit of focus, then you can’t go far wrong!