Last year I had the opportunity to speak to undergraduate science students at my old university about employment and research opportunities at my organisation. At the end of the presentations, I had a number of students come up to me to ask about various things ranging from why they should take up postgraduate studies, through to how I went about networking. Naturally, I was asked for my business card. For the most part, it was a fairly straightforward affair, but there was one particular student that screwed up big-time.
Literally. Upon handing him my card he immediately scrunched it up in his hand and chucked it in his pocket.
I was absolutely horrified. You can’t just do that!!! The Japanese are already shocked when American executives flick business cards across the boardroom table – if they ever saw that they would probably commit seppuku.
It certainly didn’t leave a good impression. But could I honestly blame him? I mean, networking isn’t one of those things that’s taught properly at university, if at all. So I wrote it off as an undergraduate mistake, because it became clear to me that the students didn’t understand the true underlying motivation behind networking. Yes, there are hundreds upon thousands of websites giving ” top tips for networking”, all you have to do is just Google them. The problem I have is that many of them only talk about the “what” and “how” of networking, without going into the real motivation behind WHO and WHY. And even so, the blogs that do touch on the “why” behind networking always say stuff like “Oh, because it’s great for my business and it opens up doors and opportunities blah blah…”. Yeah, point taken, but details people!!! And as for the “who”, it’s just as much about you, as much as the person you want or are interacting with.
So in writing this, I really do have students in mind – it’s not like you’ve got anything to offer coming out of uni, right? Well that’s where I hope to change that attitude! If you’re new to networking, welcome, if you’re familiar with the concepts, sorry to bore, but I hope everyone picks up something along the way, as I want to present my experiences and advice in a way that looks more like a worked example, rather than lecture notes.
The value offer
Funny phrase for such an important concept, but it’s at the heart of networking. Networking is all about the exchange of value, where an individual presents value in the hope of receiving value in return, be in today, tomorrow or the day after. Often in business, value comes in the form of an opportunity to make a business deal, a way to get in touch with a contact that could assist in a business process, or solve a problem. The driver is generally financial gain, or the prospect of it.
Value can take many shapes and forms, but how it’s perceived by the receiver is where the value proposition is judged. How much is a contact, information, service or good worth to me?
So in taking on board all the tips gathered around the traps on networking (being yourself, researching people or the industry/field, being professional, following up after meeting someone, etc), how to do fit in YOUR value proposition? What do you have to offer when you’re chatting with someone you perceive as valuable to you?
How do you do it?
The strategy depends on what you’re looking to gain. Let’s take employment as an example: You may need to find out who the key managers are at Organisation A to get in touch with, so you can bypass the CV killzone they call the recuitment officer. Or maybe the recruitment officer at Organisation B is the key person to speak to? So here, the information about the best way to get a job is what you want to gain. But in order for you to receive, you need to have something valuable to offer. What you have to offer is your skills, and they don’t necessarily have to be in the form of formal education, though in some cases, it is highly sought after. It could be that your sales experience in your retail job means you understand how to interact and engage customers, skills a future employer may need in a role that involves client interactions.
Going to events and doing your homework
Attending an event where representatives of the organisations go to is a good place to start. What sorts of events? Well, that depends on the industry or field. To get that information, you need to take a step back from the mechanics of networking and research the area, before going to the event. Don’t underestimate the competitive advantage you give yourself by doing deep research into a person or organisation. And that’s not just going to their website and reading their mission statement, or looking at their LinkedIn profile. What I’ve found to work is researching not only the organisation or person, but the environment they operate in – it gives you lots of more to talk about after you’ve heard the spiel a representative may give you – the spiel you already read on their website. In my case, it was looking for industry organisations in Australia for the biotech sector, finding AusBiotech’s website, becoming a member and joining their Student Association (ABSA).
Why ABSA worked for me
ABSA gave me a platform to talk from, and for a while, being part of ABSA formed the backbone of any value propositions I made. I learnt a lot about how the biotechnology industry was inherently linked to medical research and innovation, and how the associated economic and political issues affected all three.
Being a newbie is OK, the more you do it, the better you get. As long as you make the effort to learn.
Looking for intelligence did come at a cost (a lot of my time, my membership dollars, expensive conference fees), but rather than seeing the cost as a monetary expense and time away from doing fun things, I saw it as an investment in my potential future career. For a while, my value proposition was rather weak; I didn’t realise that I needed to offer something in return for the industry information I was gaining. But that changed slightly when I learnt that I should stop talking about myself and began reversing my conversation to ask about what they were about. Suddenly, people would open up about all sorts of things, and often, it had nothing to do with biotechnology. There have been cases where the only things discussed were late 70’s movies and disco music!
Inadvertently, by asking about other people and showing a genuine interest, I had changed my networking strategy from asking for value to building rapport – where the value proposition would just crop up in conversation organically. It no longer mattered that I was just a recently graduated biomedical engineer with no real work experience, because I was seen to have genuine interests in the industry and the people working in it. That was good enough for all these consultants and business managers, as I assume they saw that there would be potential value in knowing me in future; it was worth their precious time to talk to me and hear me tell them about what ABSA did for students.
The networking experience evolves to something more refined…
As time went along my career started to pick up, my IP was being commercialised and my PhD project was starting to get interesting. The way I presented myself also changed. I learnt to give a 30-second pitch, but only used it when my value proposition did not arise organically in conversation. At this stage, I was looking to find good mentors so by showing people that I was interested in learning more, it would get people’s attention. The fact that my research team were involved in pitching a VC meant that I had a story that others could relate to. The shared experience meant that they could give advice and know that I would have a true understanding of what they were talking about. My story had morphed into my value proposition, as I had increased my “interestingness” somehow – I think it’s because it’s rare for a recently-graduated student to get their vacation work IP picked up for a venture before they enter postgraduate studies.
With a commercial venture, the industry consultants basically pounced. Suddenly I found myself becoming the sought-after person, as people saw me as a way to getting involved with our venture and I was now the valuable person that could open doors. Because I had talked to many of them previously and had a good rapport, I already knew their story, and their value propositions. The ones I saw most useful, I pursued, the others that weren’t so useful, I politely declined in a professional capacity.
My network really has become not only a place where I can socialise as a professional, but also a place where I can find good information quickly, and get it for free. Giving out a business card is more than just an exchange of contact information – the card is a physical link to an individual’s value proposition. Which is why the Japanese take the business of exchanging cards so seriously (it’s a two-handed affair, complete with bowing). But I am always wary that I always have to give something in return. Especially not a scrunched-up business card.
PS: I’m certain that I’ve left out many details of my networking experience, so if you want more details about anything in particular, please comment or tweet.