A healthy community is a well-strung web of support – a network of people who support and encourage you, challenge you to think deeply, view the world with multiple perspectives and advocate for you and your success. One of the strengths of being a member of the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce is the ability to build professional relationships through networking.
Networking often is given a bad rap. People sometimes view networking as those awkward exchanges of business cards at events that might not lend themselves to meaningful conversation, and they might begin to question whether it is a good use of time.
That depends on what kind of network you have or want. It depends on whether you are intentional about how you use your time and do your follow-up. Ask yourself: Have I identified people who are strategically important to me? Am I aware of nonprofessional aspects of other people's lives to know where we might have aligning interests? Do I know what I am trying to do with the network I am building?
Some people believe that successful networking is an innate skill – you are either born with it or you struggle. Networking is a skill, and like all skills, it can be improved and developed with effort and practice.
If you believe that networking can be beneficial to you, you are more likely to be motivated to improve your skill and will see better returns than someone who believes it is something you are born with.
I caution you not to get caught up in the belief that relationship-building should be organic, and true networks develop naturally over time. A strong professional network requires time and attention, but more importantly, it requires intention.
Most relationships that form organically are those that mirror our experiences and thinking – people who we run into easily and often. This type of network rarely is useful to you and often is narrow. This type of network quickly can turn into an echo chamber and prohibit rather than advance growth and opportunity.
Building a varied and diverse network helps us to see the world from multiple perspectives. It helps us to identify potential blind spots, and it can improve our decision-making skills. It also will expand our reach of opportunity by expanding our second-tier connections and broadening the web of connections. All of this can lead to amplifying your message and marketing.
The impression that building a network is somehow manipulative or unfair generally comes down to whether a person feels they can contribute to the relationship. Perhaps if you are early in your career or new to your community, you feel it is somehow inequitable to not be able to “give as you receive.” Perhaps you feel it is unfair to build your career through networking. I encourage you to look at the value of expanding and diversifying your network for the benefit it can bring to not only you, but also your organization and team.
Networking is a rich, often unmined source of information, innovation and influence. But networking without intention can be unproductive and unrewarding. What are the top three questions you have about your industry, your field or your hobby? Who would know the answer to that? Do others know what you are curious about? If you share your questions and interests with others, they become a source of potential connections to finding the answers.
Personally, I view my thinking style as a web, and therefore, I am constantly seeing connections when I meet people. Marry that with an innate curiosity about people, and the result is a large, very diverse Rolodex of people who are a source of information, guest speakers, sounding boards, volunteers, vendors, colleagues, talent and friends.
Your mindset and attitude about networking effect the time and effort you invest in this skill.
But we always can change our minds.
• Mary Margaret Maule is president of the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.