Friday, October 09, 2015

Professionals need to be good at professional networking

One of the most significant things that I have seen grow and quite literally go through the roof in the last few years, is the power of networking. It has grown manifold from its primitive form of casual conversations or its variants in the initial part of my career, to newer dimensions that were unthinkable earlier. 

People call networking different things or use different places to network such as coffee corners, Friday evening meet-ups, after hour parties, like-minded clubs, golf courses, alumni groups, or online (think LinkedIn). Networking is almost expected these days. But, the crux of networking is to put your name out there and be known for what you are and what you are good at. It’s a massive opportunity to build one's own brand and unique identity. 

The form of networking that is prevalent these days is well-suited to a human form of what I studied about products and services in MBA under the chapter 'branding' during my marketing class. Specifically, brand recall. If you are known by the people who matter, and have your name out there at the right place with the right people, the chances are that you will get your opportunities at the right time.

Nowadays, professionally selling oneself in a social setting seems to be a very powerful thing to engage in. The art of holding a drink correctly in the right hand, or using the semi-formal set up of being dressed in a coat without a tie and having casual conversations with the right people in a social setting, or talking about cricket and other things with people who matter, are way too common. I even know a person who does not drink or smoke, but goes to every major pub in India and meets people from all walks of life and discusses music with them. He is reasonably well-known and some of us were lucky to get free entries into some of the pubs he visited - completely due to his goodwill and grandstanding network with the pub owners! Now, this has nothing to do with professional networking, but, those are the kinds of newer dimensions of networking that I was referring to earlier.

Not to forget, all the time professional networkers are searching for the opportune time to present themselves and their skills. It does not come naturally to many people, but I have seen the attempt to be noticed in many a setting and it is amazing how many people try to be natural about it. Nothing wrong with that. But, I have always believed that one needs to be fundamentally good at something and have the ability to add value. That is the core. Networking has magnified the impact of getting dream roles by perfecting the art of casual conversation interspersed with serious professional interests. 

I actually even attended a session by the famous Indian entrepreneur-cum-socialite, Suhel Seth, as a part of a book launch a few years ago. After he launched the book, he only talked about how networking has helped him grow in his career. Agreed, he said that he had always been a brilliant debater since his school days, but those core skills along with his networking skills enabled him to make a name for himself in the Indian media.

One of the most simplistic forms of networking that I experienced a few years back, was when we had to take a good 3 months before deciding to hire somebody in our team. Following his interview (during those 3 months), that prospective candidate sent us emails which had industry reports that had content relevant to our work. Further, he also emailed us some specific market intelligence from publicly available sources and contextualised them a bit, for us (based on his judgment of the role, from his interview experience). That was a sure form of networking, long before he got the job. Of course, he got the job not only because he cleared the interviews, but very clearly, somebody somewhere noticed him even after the interviews. That is brand recall for sure (even though we were looking at other candidates).

Not for a moment am I suggesting that networking is a sure shot way of reaching great heights in a career. Absolutely not. One has to be good at something and deliver, nurture and grow the value of those primary skills in order for employers to continue to be bullish about one's credentials. To that extent, networking, without an inherent core, is never good enough. People will be found out, as networking can only get people a foot in the door. As I have heard in interviews with iconic cricketers', talent can only get you through for the first couple of years. After that, it is purely performance and hard work. It does appear that this logic is true for professional networking too i.e. without being good at something, and getting through via networking is a short-term solution in career management. It is advisable to become good at something or identify what one is naturally good at, and then go about networking with that core identity/skill.

Of course, being good at something and not letting people know about it i.e. without networking, seems to be incomplete, or even inadequate at times. We do live in a competitive world, after all.

Lastly, I am convinced that networking as a skill needs to be taught in leading business schools of the world, because, when graduates enter the business world and start scaling the corporate ladder, this is a skill that they end up having to learn on the job. Why not pre-empt it and teach them those real-world, necessary skills? But, never forget to teach them the core i.e. make them good at their areas of expertise - be it finance, operations, marketing, supply chain or strategy or any other stream of academic endeavour in a business environment (which is what I am exposed to). 

I wonder how I will view professional networking at the end of my career (still some years away!). Should be interesting to see how this skill evolves, in times to come.

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