Developing and Maintaining Strong Networks

Thursday 13th November 2014

GBA Newsletter

Helen Nicholson, Director of The Networking CompanyHelen Nicholson is the Director of The Networking Company, a South African-based organization that specializes in teaching people to master the art of networking. Her book, “Networking: How to Get Your Black Belt in Business Success” offers a good quick introduction to this topic.

GBA: Your book says that the difference between successful leaders and average leaders is the size of their network. What empirical evidence is behind that?

Helen Nicholson: There was a Fortune 500 study in 2003 that found that truly successful leaders spent 57 percent of their time out building relationships, whereas average leaders only spent 13 percent of their time doing that. That was one of the main characteristics that really distinguished the successful people from the average.

GBA: A lot of folks have an instinctive negative reaction to the idea of networking. What explains that, and what have you found to be a way to break through?

Helen Nicholson: People often think of networking negatively. They associate it with salespeople; they think it’s about schmoozing and going to boring cocktail parties. In actual fact, when people get their head around what real networking is — building those mutually beneficial business relationships — they see the value it contributes. But people need to be trained to see this and to have that mind-set change.

People also have to realize that networking is a vehicle for communicating their personal brand, and they need to evolve that brand and raise their visibility — otherwise they run the risk of becoming a no-name brand.

GBA: What do you mean by personal brand?

Helen Nicholson: It’s a tough concept to get your head around, but we all have personal brands. Even if you haven’t actively managed your brand or you haven’t realized what it is, people are saying things about you when you’re not in the room. There are words that come to people’s minds about how they perceive you.

These also include what I call the “coffee stains” on your brand. They might say, “Oh, they are always late,” or, “They don’t respond to email quickly enough.” It can be the way you relate to people. It can even be the way you look or sound. Coffee stains are generally very easily fixable — you just need to become aware of what they are.

The secret of personal branding is clarity. I always encourage people during a presentation or a workshop to send a text message to 6 or 7 people and say, “If you had to describe me in one word, what would that word be?” Often people have a similar perception of you, and that means you have a well-developed brand. But if you have wildly differing descriptors, that means you’re putting on very different hats around different people. The more consistent your brand is, the more authentic it becomes. If you look at famous personal brands, like Oprah, there’s a foundation of authenticity.

Networking — how to get your black belt in busoness successGBA: What are some of the key principles to building your personal network?

Helen Nicholson: Networks function best when you stick to your strengths, and then you have a network of people around you that represents your weaknesses. For example, if I’m not good at finances, then I’ll have a good financial advisor. So unconsciously, we actually already do this. You almost need to have a personal board of directors — people who either mentor or champion you, or they’re very different from you and fill out strengths you don’t have.

Diversity in networks is very important. If your network has people who are clones of you — same gender, same age, same race, same industry — it’s not a powerful network. If you can leverage the expertise of someone with a different background, then you don’t have to become an expert in that area.

GBA: What do networks deliver?

Helen Nicholson: Networks primarily deliver three things. The first is access to diverse skill sets, which we’ve already discussed.

The second is access to private information. If you think of smokers in the corporate world, for example, you’ll often find smokers have access to information from a whole diverse range of people because they all go outside and smoke together, whereas your typical businessperson only gets information from people in the general network. Smokers will generally know information before it goes out in an email because they’re tapped into a sort of hidden network. If you only rely on information from formal channels in the company, you’re at a disadvantage.

Finally, networks offer power. Whether it’s from a first-to-market perspective or intelligence gathering, whoever lands it first is going to be in a position of power. Your network, if it works well, is what is going to supply you with that information.

GBA: Banking is a relationship business. What advice would you give to Relationship Managers in terms of cultivating customer networks?

Helen Nicholson: Networking is about farming and looking after relationships. It’s not about hunting. That’s often where a typical business development or salesperson will get it wrong — they’ll have just one interaction with a potential client and think they’re going to network. In my experience it takes 6 years to develop a good network. It’s not that you won’t feel the benefit of the relationship before that, but if you have farmed and really actively focused on developing a relationship, after 6 years it starts to take care of itself.

Trust is really the basis of good networking. That’s why referrals are so important. If I contact my colleague, and she refers someone from XYZ bank, you’ve immediately taken a whole lot of years out of that networking farming — you can almost immediately go to “year 4” because already that trust that exists.

GBA: How important are events and those types of activities in cultivating networks?

Helen Nicholson: The latest research shows shared activities are a very important way to fast-track networks. For example, spending time participating in hobbies or sports with people creates very intense relationships. All business development people should be participating in charities, cycling, running, etc., because that quickly fosters a much stronger bond than you would get if you’re just sitting across the desk from them.

GBA: What are the keys to keeping networks alive?

Helen Nicholson: Networks need oxygen. One of the best networkers I know runs an accounting/auditing company, and he literally has a lunch every day with either an existing or prospective client. That’s what gives his network oxygen. The oxygen of networks is activity. But it’s not about running around doing arbitrary networking — you have to be strategic and intentional about building your network, and decide which events are part of that.

It’s also very important to keep in touch with the people you used to work with. People get so involved in their current roles that they forget about their former coworkers, and keeping in touch with them is a critical networking success factor.

GBA: Are there gender differences or issues that we should be aware of to maximize the impact on women of being part of a network?

Helen Nicholson: Networking is one of the biggest issues holding women back. There was a piece of research recently from one of the banks here in South Africa that looked at men and women at a senior level in the organization, and wanted to find out why — when everyone had the same education level, the same background and the same experience — the men were overtaking the women. And the biggest difference they found was the size of the networks. According to the research, men had, on average, between 50-70 people within the bank who they could call for help with a specific issue, whereas women only had 11-15 people. Networking is a quality game, but it’s also a numbers game.

There are a whole lot of issues that lie behind those statistics. One is that after meeting a new contact and not nurturing the relationship, women are concerned the contact will think, “I haven’t talked to her in four months, and now she only phones me when she needs something.” Men don’t have those issues. They don’t see someone for 20 years, and they can phone them and ask for something. Men are better at the acquaintance network, and women need to get their heads around it and realize that just by virtue of meeting today, I can phone you if I have an issue and ask you for help.

I think that on a subconscious level, women do know that they don’t leverage networks in the same way that men do. I think education is the only way it’s going to change.

GBA: Our banks tell us that women are empowered by sharing information and also tend to “pay it forward.” Is that your experience?

Helen Nicholson: We need to divide the Women’s Market into professional women and women entrepreneurs, because there are differences within the subsets. Professional women have more of a reluctance to pay it forward — they have not adapted nearly enough. Women entrepreneurs “get it” on a very visionary level, and you find that once they have the training, they realize how powerful networking is for their business.

And as a mentor for female entrepreneurs myself, I have absolutely seen that women need support in building their networks. Think about the old boys’ network. It starts at school. Men who go to school together look after each other, even years after they’ve left school. Women tend to not have those sorts of experiences of unity as much as men do, and they don’t come out of that old-school boys’ network.

Women also seem to think that asking for help shows weakness. And it really doesn’t.

GBA: What about the legendary Queen Bee phenomenon?

Helen Nicholson: I think it does exist in some cases. I have just been to the launch of the 30% Club here in Johannesburg, which has the goal of getting women to make up 30% of our corporate boards. And by way of anecdotal evidence, someone was saying that when you get one woman on a board, then she becomes like a man; when you get two women on a board, they’re tight; and if you get three women on a board, that’s when real transformation starts to happen. It’s like a critical mass. And I think that’s where things have to move.

GBA: What other advice would you give about networking?

Helen Nicholson: One of the crucial things we teach people is how to identify the connectors in their networks. Connectors are people who have additional value up to a power of 100. And once women — or men — start identifying who those connectors are and stay in touch with them on a regular basis, then real career movement starts to happen.

What’s quite interesting about your connectors is that they’re generally not good on email or technology; they’re face-to-face people. So I get people to audit their networks and find out who their connectors are, and then my next question is, “When did you last see them?” If you haven’t seen them in the last 6 months, then you’re losing out on the benefits of knowing that connector because they’re “out of sight, out of mind” people.

The major advice for women is to become more intentional about their networking. It offers a huge treasure trove of information and opportunities. And when your brand starts to increase, you get a promotion, your salary increases, you start to see that it translates into very direct benefits.

— As told to the Global Banking Alliance for Women