The instincts, skills and strategies necessary to build a vibrant and productive professional web of contacts are varied, complex and by no means natural to most people, even “natural salespeople.” Understanding reciprocity, mapping relationships, intuiting the self-interest of others, prioritizing conflicting needs, professional matchmaking, normalizing agenda-free but genuine communication—these are the building blocks of robust relationship capital. I suspect that’s a major reason so many organizations don’t bother to teach networking. If you believe network builders are born, not made, that either you have the skills to build and tap successful networks—some combination of high social IQ, effort and extroversion—or you don’t, then what’s the point?
Well, I beg to differ.
Although many aspects of networking and contact development are indeed soft skills, my experience tells me these qualities can, like most anything else, be broken down into theory, strategy and tactics. They can, in other words, be taught. And they must be, at least in any enterprise that wants to maximize and leverage its internal relationship capital.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I haven’t invented a formal curriculum. But I want to, because whatever your field—business services, technology, manufacturing, nonprofit or something else—robust networks matter far beyond conventional sales and deal cycles: from sourcing expertise to forging alliances, from recruiting talent to researching new business lines. And that’s especially true at the higher reaches of the org chart. As responsibilities increase, goals grow more challenging and the need to gain access to and tap influencers and decision-makers increases exponentially, not just one’s own but those of the larger enterprise. I can’t tell you how many deals I’ve completed because of connections that came from colleagues who had nothing to do with sales or marketing.
Look around your organization, and ask yourself two questions. How many of your colleagues—salespeople and executives alike—are as skilled as they could be at developing, nurturing and leveraging their professional networks and those of their coworkers? And, more crucially, how much longer can you wait until all of them are?