While you can’t pay bills with them, the real currency of business is relationships. They open doors and lead to opportunities that can pay off.
The two primary business relationship types are internal and external. Internal are the relationships with your co-workers, direct reports and even your boss. External relationships are with those outside the company: customers, vendors, bankers, bonding agents and more.
Both types are essential, and each play a role in your professional or business success. This column focuses on external relationships and how to build and strengthen your professional network.
Building a strong network is a two-way street and takes time, effort and persistence. Both parties must find value in the relationship to make it work. Even if you are an industry rookie, you may be surprised at the value you can bring to seasoned veterans. Don’t slam a door shut before trying to open it by assuming you don’t provide value.
The first step in building your network is identifying the value you bring to the relationship. Why do people seek you out? Are you known for solving a particular problem? How do you convey the value you can bring to the relationship?
Think of this as your personal elevator pitch. If someone were to ask you what you do while at a dinner party, what would you tell them?
The second step is becoming visible. Make a point to educate and inform others on how you can solve problems in their network. You must be clear about the Step 1 for this one to work.
How are you getting the word out about how you can help solve problems? One of the easiest ways to become visible is to get involved in industry groups and civic organizations, as well as volunteering for nonprofit or other community associations. Less formal involvement could be in religious, sports or hobby-related groups or clubs. Spending time sharing your expertise in low-pressure environments is a great place to start.
The last step is to nurture these relationships, and this is where you will spend most of your time. To nurture relationships, you need to be proactive, systematic and strategic in your approach. Because relationships are mutual, both parties must provide value to make the relationship last. Each of your needs may change, so adjusting your approach to the relationship will help strengthen it.
To build a strong professional network, you need to have a plan. With a goal or objective in mind, ask yourself, what is the door I want to open? What opportunity am I seeking out? Who can help open this door? Who holds the key to the opportunity I seek?
Start by writing down what opportunity you want. Next, list three people in your current network who can get you one step closer. These are not superficial acquaintances, but individuals you know well who will pick up the phone when you call them.
Before you pick up the phone or send that email to make your request, spend some time revisiting the first two steps. What will you bring to the table? Once you have your elevator pitch polished, jot down next to each of the three people you listed what you are asking them to do. Do you want them to make an introduction, provide a recommendation or to connect you to someone else? Be prepared with what you will offer them in return. If you are concerned with an inequality in the value, simply ask them what you could do for them in return for honoring your request.
Regardless of where you are in your career or your place within your company’s organizational structure, having a strong professional network can make you one of the richest people in the room. Building wealth with the currency of business doesn’t happen overnight. Being deliberate, genuine, professional and persistent will pay huge dividends in the end.