Project Practitioners > Networking as a Strategic Business Skill

Networking as a Strategic Business Skill

By Laura Erkeneff

Many people do not like networking. In fact, for many of my friends, especially in the technology sector, you could say they hate it. For these folks, networking is at best annoying and at worst reminiscent of a slimy sales person trying to sell you something that you don't need and don't want to buy. However, in my experience, networking is one of the most important, misunderstood and underutilized business tools we have as professionals.

It all starts with our attitude – how we approach meeting new people, and how (or if) we connect to the people we do meet. Right now, are you thinking about your difficulties talking to strangers? Your irritation with people who can engage in small talk for hours on the phone while you do the majority of the team's work? If so, your attitude could be hindering you and forever doom you to the status of an incompetent networker. People, sensing your unease, will move away from you as fast as fleas on a dog just doused with flea powder.

But what if networking could help you do your project with greater ease, better quality or from a more strategic vantage within you company? Would you give it a try? Most likely, yes. If you weren't open to new ideas for improvement, you would not be reading this website. So, let's look at some "What if" scenarios to see how networking might help you.

What if you could learn how that mysterious organization called Marketing works in your company, find out how they envision your product before you hand it over? Let's say that networking over lunch, you discover some of the Marketing people are focused on products that will open up the Gen Y sector. Not everyone in the company is convinced, so no official company announcement of a new direction has been made. Your lunch contact thinks that there could be as much as a 25% market increase in the US alone… Wouldn't that new information open up some questions for your Marketing person? Don't you think you and your team might think of your products a little differently? Wouldn't your enthusiasm increase as you calculate your future in a growing company and imagine how to spend your annual bonus?

What if you could prevent project derailments? What if, instead of losing two weeks to a beta failure ultimately linked to a specific vendor's part, you could be instrumental in avoiding the calamity altogether? Think of how you might benefit by having a pre-existent peer friendship with a few key people in Manufacturing who called you privately ahead of time with their suspicions about the vendor, before the problem blew up and got everyone's attention?

What if it's just a difficult day for many reasons, and the pressure is getting to you? The execs are stomping around, and your team seems to have lost its common sense. Instead of kicking the cat (or dog) when you get home, how about networking? Call a friend from outside the company to share, gain insight and regain balance. Research has proven that a trusted peer is at least as – and often more – effective than psychotherapy in fixing problems where pathology is not involved. In fact, for the price of a phone call, a cup of coffee or lunch, you can increase the span of your life by an average of seven years by having a network of friends.

Networking can seem a daunting task. And yet, it is one of those "people skills" that successful professionals have in common, one that helps them succeed in the business world. Networking merges and aligns different viewpoints and skills. It can give you a more strategic and whole picture of what is going on with your project, your group, or even the company.

When you approach networking with an attitude of real curiosity, real interest and real genuineness, you will find it gets easier and is helpful in both your professional and personal life. I would love to hear about your networking successes or failures and what you have learned. Who knows, you may have the perfect tip to get someone out of their cave and sharing their wisdom with the world.

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If you're still not convinced, Cinda Voegtli also makes an excellent case for Career Management as Personal Marketing. Not sure where to start networking? Try your project stakeholder list. (You do know who all your stakeholders are, right?) Make sure all this networking is taking you down the career path you really want by aligning your priorities, actions, and goals.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I often found networking to be a vital element in helping me see the bigger picture. Doing technology work often finds me working alone for long periods of time solving complex problems. More often than not, the effect of talking with a co-worker or my project manager would pull me past a block and I would break through to new levels of understanding. There's a lot to be said about using a second set of eyes. The same goes for voices and minds.

As a trainer and consultant in an engineering company, I appreciate your insights on how to communicate the importance of networking technical people. Often, the technical people in my classes or in my facilitations often tune out when the subject of soft skills comes up. I'll use this to help "sell" the importance of networking.

Great hit list on networking however it does not go far enough. All successful businesses and projects are built on networking and having the best team or companies involved to solve the customer issues. Technical personnel need to get out and talk with non-technical people at least once or twice a month to clear the code out of their head or translate it into English. I can not count the number of projects or resumes that have crossed my desk with "referral" on them that I did not have to spend time trying to locate because of networking. The tougher the times, the more important it is to business and personal success.

Wow, we have two devotees to the benefits of Networking. Thanks for writing. What advice would you give someone who is not a "natural" at this skill? Can you learn it? What has helped you, personally? When someone has wanted to network with you, what has been successful and what has turned you off?

Excellent points, Jeffrey. Especially when I was internal, I rarely brought anyone in without a referral from someone I trusted. And, as you pointed out, networking has saved me hundreds of hours of time. When I am looking to pull in a person with a specific skill set, I usually can get an answer within a day from my network.

Networking can also give you information not easily found in any other way. For example, when I needed some benchmark reliability data for similar medical products to convince management that our targets were both reasonable and challenging, I relied on a network of people I've worked with in the past. This information is always un-published and confidential. With a little abstraction (not giving company names or too many details) I was able to give 5 - 10 examples of reliability examples and help build management confidence in our goals.

Matt, you just brought out one of the most valuable aspects of networking. Trusted networks move with people and are not confined within companies. I belong to a network of people who worked together 10 years ago at the same company. We all have moved on, but we still share generic best practices. Not only have we each personally benefited from sharing, but our companies have seen the benefits too. I think your example aptly points this out.

I'm one of those people who naturally recoil at the word "networking." Having had my own business for so long, I got used to its use to mean "go to some event where you're supposed to exchange business cards". The way its being used in this article and comments, I do and believe in, but had not internally used the word "networking" to describe it. I've tended to think of it more as "relationship building".

I think one source of negative connotations around the word networking as used in "networking event" is that it implies making contact with people in order to get something you need from them, as opposed to making contact and establishing relationships for mutual or reciprocal benefit at later points in time.

In project management roles, the importance of having a network - having relationships with - various people all over the company has always been clear to me. I think it's a great idea to teach individual contributors that benefit too.

Final note - I worked on a contract in government where proactive efforts to establish relationships for the good of the program was referred to as planning for "a thousand cups of coffee". I like the picture that conjures up.

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