Sunday 25 August 2019

Alan O'Neill: 'Good networking is all in the giving not the taking'

For many people, the idea of networking strikes fear. The key is to see it as a chance to help others, and it will be returned to you in spades

Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to
Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to

Alan O'Neill

Up there with speaking in public, another great fear that business people have is networking. The very notion of networking conjures up all sorts of images of pushy salespeople and eager beavers that'd bore you to tears with their latest idea. As a regular keynote speaker at events around Europe, I see all sorts of cultural differences and personalities. Many dread going forward at events and for those of a more introverted nature, approaching others is a bigger fear than skydiving.

Yet networking always will be essential to getting on with others. Our natural comfort zone is to hang around with others that are like us, which makes for a limited circle. As our society (and Ireland in particular) becomes more diverse, we therefore limit our opportunities.

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While we all know instinctively that networking is essential for our personal growth and for our firms, we don't get training or KPIs around such activity. I met this week with Kingsley Aikins who has a personal Rolodex that would be the envy of many. Having spent a lifetime mixing with the great and good, he now offers training through his Networking Institute.

"When you got the job that you are now in, you most likely got it on your track record and technical skills. But as you progress in your role, those attributes alone are not enough, as your ability to network comes to the fore," he said.

Networking is not just about going to trade shows. We also get to meet people at social events, and even through serendipity. I was travelling recently from Lisbon to Madrid and my flight was delayed. When I got to my seat, the guy beside me was just a little more annoyed than I was and had to get it off his chest. I listened and in no time at all we were like Statler and Waldorf, the two grumps from The Muppet Show. I wasn't so grumpy when a week later he booked me to speak at his next management conference.

Tips for Better Networking

Aikins shared some practical tips with me. His most interesting advice is to approach networking as a 'giver' rather than a 'taker'.

1 Research the event in advance

If you can, check out the speaker list and the potential attendees. It might be a supplier, customer, investor, introducer or whatever. Rather than plan for what you want from them, think about what you can possibly do to help them.

2 Ask questions

Be interested, rather than interesting. When you do meet another person, asking questions is the best way to generate conversation and to take the pressure off yourself. You might meet someone in the queue for coffee, at the buffet table or when you sit beside them. Asking soft questions such as 'what are you hoping to get from the event?' is an easy ice-breaker. And try at some point to ask: 'How can I help you?'

3 Actively listen

Remembering a person's name is very flattering, yet it's not easy in a noisy room. When you hear a name, immediately repeat it and then associate that person with another person that you know of the same name. That exercise, coupled with you saying their name out loud, will help your memory.

4 Know your elevator pitch

When and if you do get to tell a little about yourself, keep your summary short and concise. You should have a different pitch for different types of events. The pitch that is relevant for a potential customer will most likely be very different to one for an investor.

5 Manage serendipity

You can make 'random chance' happen for you. But it doesn't happen when you stay at home! It will only happen when you get out there and engage with others.

6 Build wider connections

Rather than circulating only with like-minded people where we build strong relationships, take a risk and engage with more diverse groups.

7 Build trust

Authenticity is very obvious when networking. Networking is often mixed up with sociability, and men in general seem to have less difficulty in mixing. But interestingly, women are often better at building trust than men. Build trust through authenticity. As mentioned above, show genuine interest and listen, then follow through the next day on any promises made.

8 Fight shyness

If you're shy and dread networking occasions, I'm afraid you'll just have to fight it. Perhaps you might try to go with someone.

The last word

At the risk of sounding like a fuddy duddy, I'm really curious about younger people who have been brought up on an overdose of social media and smartphones. As a predominant way of communicating, it will potentially lead to having much less empathy for others. How can you really relate to another person when you miss seeing body language, facial expressions, or hearing tone of voice? Of course, I see the tremendous value in new ways of communication. I'm an avid fan of technology and I wouldn't be much of a 'change agent' if I didn't embrace new realities.

But I also recognise, even in myself, the growing attraction of taking communication shortcuts through Whatsapp, text and emails. While high-tech is good, don't forget high-touch.

By the way, in case you're interested, there are reputed studies that show those who excel at traditional face-to-face networking make more money and live longer. You can go to to download some more tips.

Alan O'Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to

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