It takes effort, but networking will bring results
Many of us take for granted the business of networking. The old adage, 'it's not what you know, it's who you know' is vital in today's competitive job market. In fact, a referral generates 80pc more results than a cold call.
Many see networking as superficial or contrived, but ask some of Ireland's most gifted connectors for their tips on networking and you won't hear anything about how to fake a smile or never take no for an answer.
Even if the idea of becoming more "networked" is appealing, the hundreds of groups from Plato and Sunzu to traditional institutions like chambers of commerce now in operation can mean that just knowing where to begin can be an issue.
"The idea is that you establish real relationships, and at an event, you're goal is to get to know people – not hard sell yourself," says Charlie Lawson, director of BNI in Ireland, a networking referral organisation.
Giver's gain is the 'good karma' business belief that turns misconceptions of cut-throat, hard-selling on its ugly head: it's not about what others can do for you – it's about what you can do for them.
"If you can effectively help people get to where they want to in life, someday they're going to turn around and ask, 'how can I help you?' What goes around comes around."
Lorraine Carter of Persona Design, who is a member of Irish International Business Network (IIBN) and Dublin Chambers, receives 50pc of her business from networking. She sees it as a learning process, too. She also regularly attends a number of other networking groups that don't require formal membership.
Carter advises that networking should take time and effort: "You're only going to get to know people by regularly attending. When your face is more familiar, and you build trust, people are inclined to create a relationship with you."
BNI's Lawson advises to view people in your network as catalysts with the know-how to expand your circles.
"Let's say there's 50 people in the room; they've got 1,000-plus contacts. So, technically, you're dealing with 50,000 people, not just 50 people. That's the power of networking."
To be a successful networker, firstly you've got to have a defined plan and know your target audience.
"It's really important you design a networking strategy that fits with your personality and lifestyle," says Caitlin O'Connor, a networking expert and founder of Accelerating Performance.
"You need to set a vision and goal. If you're going to a networking event and you don't know what you're looking for, you're probably not going to find it."
She also emphasises the word 'work' in networking: "People see it as superficial and not as crucial as it is. But it is crucial and it is work, and you must schedule [it] into your working week."
O'Connor suggests to communicate what you do in no more than 10 words because this defeats "verbal dumping", giving you more time to "understand and listen to how you can help them with the other person networking".
What's the biggest mistake? Not following up, BNI's Lawson says.
"If you go to any networking event, you'll meet people. You might arrange to meet someone, send a document or call for a coffee. If you don't follow up, your credibility is instantly shot," says Lawson.
There's many forms of networking groups in Ireland: there's structured, membership-only networks like BNI, Dublin Chamber's Business Owners Network, Institute of Directors, and MBA Association, Sunzu and Plato. These groups offer tailored weekly or monthly events, and some also offer business development programmes. Yearly membership fees range from €100-€800.
There's other non-membership events like networking ideas roadshow IdeaGen, The Archie Talks for young start-ups, and then MeetWest for businesses in the West.
But that's the short list, O'Connor recently recorded individual networking events in Ireland and so far she has reached 700.
So, how many networking events should you attend? Like Lawson, O'Connor does maths, indicating that networking is a science not an art.
"If you need 10 customers a year, then you probably need to have 30 meaningful conversations, which means you need to meet about 300 people."
O'Connor says you only meet about 10 people at any one event. In order to meet 300 people, you'd need to attend about 30 networking events a year.
Accountant Michael Fitzpatrick, founder Fitzpatrick and Associates, receives 20pc of his business from networking, but he doesn't believe in network groups.
"You can do your own networking, you don't need to be in Plato, IIBN or Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Chamber. My main network is getting introductions through professional colleagues."
Networking events are the fast route: "You'll get a lot of noise but nothing at the end of it except an awful lot of connections.
"I don't want to have 600 connections on LinkedIn just for the sake of it. I'd much rather have 150 that I'm having regular contact with."
Dunbar's Number is a concept explaining how most of us can only manage 150 meaningful relationships or connections at any one time.
With social networking increasing 'engagement', can online tools create meaningful relationships?
"LinkedIn is vital," says O'Connor. "No company or individual can survive without it. Going forward, neither face-to-face networking and social networking is going to lead: they're both intertwined – you can't do one without the other."
O'Connor has 1,800 LinkedIn connections, but as a serial networker she's either met most connections or has talked to them on the phone.
"Every quarter it's good to print out your online or offline contact database, pull out your business cards and highlight who you'd like to have coffee with."
O'Connor says: "It's about what you can do for them and and then in time you'll find it will go full circle. If you help people, it generally comes back around to you. The penny is very round."