For a lot of people networking has always been a bit of a mixed bag. Back in the college days, it seemed like a transactional chore. The idea of forging connections solely for personal gain and engaging in small talk with strangers was a daunting prospect.
However, as business owners mature on their journey they realize that networking can be more than just a means to an end.
Sure, networking can open doors to job opportunities and new ventures. But it can also be about building authentic relationships, sharing knowledge, and giving back to the community. It all comes down to your approach and what you hope to achieve.
If you're a small business owner feeling overwhelmed or uncertain about networking, fret not. Here's some valuable advice tailored to your needs.
The Importance of Networking for Small Business Owners
A professional network offers numerous benefits, but one of the most significant is fostering business growth. Research indicates that individuals with robust networks tend to earn higher salaries and secure more promotions. This is hardly surprising; the broader your connections, both within and outside your business, the more likely you are to stumble upon new opportunities.
Moreover, when you engage with a diverse array of people, you're constantly gaining insights. Depending on your network, you can seek feedback on critical projects, stay updated on industry trends, or gain valuable advice on navigating your organization's culture. These interactions can contribute to your personal growth and enhanced performance as a small business owner.
Getting Started: An Easy Approach to Networking
Forget the stereotypical image of bustling, noisy networking events filled with strangers. Networking can begin with reconnecting with dormant ties. These are people you've known but haven't reached out to in a while. Research suggests that dormant ties are more likely to offer creative advice compared to new connections, especially if you've already built a foundation of trust.
Start by jotting down the names of two or three dormant ties each week – those individuals you once felt a strong connection with. Drop them a short message, like, "Hey, I've been thinking about you. How have you been?" Take it from there. While you may have specific questions or objectives in mind, focus on rekindling the connection as a first step.
Is Networking Only About Landing Jobs?
Networking isn't exclusively about job hunting. The traditional perception of networking – attending in-person events and striving to secure a new position – has evolved with the digital age. It now encompasses building global connections, sharing knowledge, and forging deeper relationships. Here's how you can reshape your perspective on networking as a small business owner:
Networking as Giving: If networking feels transactional, consider using it as an opportunity to offer your knowledge, skills, advice, or expertise to others without expecting immediate returns. This approach can help you establish more profound connections. Think about what you excel at and enjoy, and offer your assistance accordingly. For instance, if you're great at proofreading, help someone edit their resume or cover letter. If you excel at listening, provide support to someone going through a challenging time.
Beyond Small Talk: If you dread small talk, you're not alone. Research indicates that most people prefer meaningful conversations, even when meeting someone for the first time. Engaging in deep discussions is linked to higher levels of happiness and a stronger sense of connection. Replace typical small talk questions with more engaging conversation starters to foster meaningful connections.
How to Improve Your Networking Skills as a Small Business Owner
Now that you understand the importance of networking and have some approaches in mind, let's explore ways to enhance your networking skills as a small business owner.
Define Your Learning Goals: If you're unsure where to start, focus on connecting with individuals from whom you can learn. Seek out "lateral connections" within your industry or organization – those at your same job level. They can provide valuable insights, diverse perspectives, and access to different opportunities within your company.
For example, if you run a small retail business, consider connecting with someone in a related department, like product development. Their insights into new innovations can help improve your product offerings, while your perspective can contribute to their understanding of customer needs.
Build Relationships Across Levels: While connecting with peers is crucial, don't limit yourself to your immediate circle. Forge relationships with individuals at various organizational levels – not just your direct manager. Your career growth can accelerate when you establish connections throughout your organization, including its different departments. These relationships can lead to high-profile projects and support your career aspirations.
Reach out to higher-ups, review your recent projects with them, and share insights from the front lines. Collaborate with leaders from other departments to showcase your skills and gain advocates for your performance during promotions and evaluations.
Showcase Your Value: When connecting with individuals senior to you, emphasize the unique skills and knowledge you bring to the table. If you're passionate about a particular topic, such as technology, and believe it could benefit your business, share your ideas with senior leaders. Creating a monthly catch-up or a platform, like a Slack channel, where you regularly post relevant content can establish you as an expert in your field.
Once you're recognized as a subject matter expert, leaders within your organization may seek your input and advice, further bolstering your reputation.
Clarity in External Networking: If you're aiming to connect with people outside your organization, platforms like LinkedIn are invaluable. They eliminate the anxiety of in-person networking events. When reaching out to potential connections, be clear about your intentions. Avoid vague inquiries like, "Can I pick your brain?" Instead, succinctly introduce yourself, explain how you found the person, and state your purpose.
For example, you might say, "Hi [Name], I'm impressed by your career journey. I'm looking to build my career in [role], and I would greatly appreciate some advice based on your experience. Would you be open to a brief call at your convenience?"
Inclusivity in Networking: It's crucial to recognize that networking doesn't always create an even playing field. Individuals from marginalized backgrounds may receive advice to "network for better opportunities." However, the reality is that privileged groups often control access to the majority of jobs and opportunities.
If you find yourself in this situation, consider your unique strengths and life experiences as assets. As a first-generation student or an immigrant, for instance, you may possess valuable skills like cultural competence and adaptability. Embrace your strengths and craft a compelling narrative that highlights how you can contribute to your target audience's needs, whether it's a company, a role, or a promotion.
Networking is a Skill You Can Develop
Networking may seem daunting initially, but remember that it's a skill that can be learned and refined over time. Practice is key. Approach networking as an opportunity for self-discovery, helping others, and cultivating genuine connections.