Networking: working in the 2020s?


“It’s not what you know, but who you know”.

The 2020s are delivering a significant update to that seemingly timeless cliché.

Building business relationships continues to be relevant despite all the technology at our disposal. Ultimately, we are dealing with someone behind a computer or an app: not just talking to an algorithm.  But the way we go about building our networks has been changing  amidst the combined forces of pandemic and technology.

A post last year from the PPC Company recommends a range of strategies for IFAs building offline relationships: top of their list is using a lead generation company –they would say that wouldn’t they? Next up is referrals and networking – so building relationships remains key.

As someone who has built many client relationship through ‘word of mouth’, I vouch for the value of networking  as a standalone task. Having an extraversion slant to my personality probably helps drive that.

So let us consider how ‘word of mouth’ works now, and has been working for some years now.

The online networking genie will not be going back into the bottle. There will still be face to face opportunities and the differing dynamics mean that in financial services, while the services are built online, the strongest relationships will occur through people – especially if you actually meet them

During a conversation, a problem is discussed, and one party knows someone with a possible solution. It could sound something like “You could try Phil Ingle”. Note what happens next. Whoever receives that name in that moment will then reach for their phone and Google who has been recommended. If there is a website, they will look at that. Increasingly the website may not be the first online check – it could be Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. If they like the look (see some pictures) and sound ( listen to a short video) of the person they may think ‘maybe…’ and then decide to follow up – send a message, make a call.

Networking therefore comes down to finding solutions, whether directly yourself, or when you cannot, finding someone who can.

The drive to network seems, on the face of it, unquestionable. A search of “Why professional networking is important” shows some 361 million results. A closer look though, shows many of these to be articles and thoughts from recruitment organisations – the people who most need to meet new people. In contrast the “I hate networking search” throws up 29 million results, which shows not everyone relishes the prospect.

Having run training sessions to develop networking skills I have often come across those who seek guidance because they hate networking. In pre pandemic times this seemed to include a demographic which was mainly female and under 35. The thought of going into a room full of men in suits filled some with dread.  On occasions, one of those men may have been me.

The pandemic has bought into question the whole idea of networking face to face, with the concept of a handshake being anathema to some. We will see how long this continues. Similarly business cards: how relevant do they seem in the age of the hand sanitiser? Just another way of showing how out of date you are?

The drive to WFH means fewer F2F opportunities, so we build relationships now through a screen – and at a frequency we would not have dreamed of in 2019.

One change is the death of the standalone networking session. Pre pandemic these meetings could amount to being put in a room with dozens of others fuelled by caffeine and sugar –  and left to get on with it.

Such scenes would also occur between sessions at conferences and exhibitions, but at least then you knew what the common purpose was likely to be.

How effective is your networking online?

On Zoom, Teams or other video technology, things are different. Free flowing discussion with a dozen others is impossible: people end up talking across each other or the conversation stays too superficial. Breakout rooms to discuss topic related questions work much better and allow you to form an impression about those you meet and if that is positive, easy enough to follow up with a LinkedIn connection.

Social media exchanges can contribute to your relationship building, although this depends on how they are used and how you build your profile, rather than which platform you are on. The methodology of, for example, Instagram versus Facebook will enable relationship to be built, while (in my view) Twitter seems able to destroy relationship just as easily. Quora is an example where more considered conversations happen over longer form that Twitter’s 240 characters, but you need to be in groups and topics which are most relevant to you and your desired audience.

The networking elephant in the room, or rather on your phone/computer, remains LinkedIn. For those in recruitment it is the must have tool. The tone of many posts (i.e. those that I look at) seems professionally focused overall, and I find the search facility incredibly useful. Sometimes I can recall someone’s first name, or their face, but rarely full name. When I am asked to recommend someone, I easily search my connections using only a first name, or other criteria, meaning I am generally able to find who I am looking for  – a referral – even when I cannot recall all the details.

New platforms change things too. Clubhouse – if you have an invite – provides networking crossed with podcast, complete with its own protocols about ‘hands up’ and ‘joining the stage’.  At the moment this is for iPhone users only – and you have to be invited. I found some lively discussions there, while also aware of the black hole of time it can become, like much social media.

Networking Apps multiply too, including Guild, which enables small groups to form and exchange thoughts. Other platforms have their own pros and cons – Hopin, for example, allowing instant conversation even if you do not know the value of it up front.

Networking success through your phone is entirely possible, but the guideline here is to select the Apps/platforms that work for you. What is unlikely to succeed is a chasing round too  many social media sites/apps. This is the online equivalent of being a full-time networker, not a worker.

What about getting back into the room? At the time of writing we anticipate a lifting of restrictions under the UK government ‘roadmap’. As with the WFH debate, there are people who are keen to meet face to face again, while others are content to reduce travel and meet online. The online networking genie will not be going back into the bottle. There will still be face to face opportunities and the differing dynamics mean that in financial services, while the services are built online, the strongest relationships will occur through people – especially if you actually meet them.

I was drawn to the work of MacCarron, Kaski & Dunbar, from which we get the ‘Dunbar number’ – the idea that we have a circle of around 150 friends. They make the point though that we have friends in layers and derive their conclusions from mobile phone data. What this also hints at is that the closest relationships have a personal, live element to them.

Despite the pandemic and the tidal wave of technology, I suggest 3 basics of networking will not change:

  • In business, whenever you are communicating – like it or not, you are networking.
  • To meet the people you would like to meet, you will be most effective going where they are likely to be. No point thinking a 4N Networking meeting will work if you want to meet City fund managers. Consider which platforms make most sense: LinkedIn remains the main online medium for financial services.
  • Even in the post pandemic world without elevators, you will still need an elevator pitch. Introducing yourself with name, rank, number – or its corporate equivalent of name, employer, and incomprehensible job title – is just too dull. Say something interesting, in well under 30 seconds, even if not in an elevator. Especially not actually in an elevator.
  • When building relationships, another timeless phrase provides the foundation stone: no one cares what you know, until they know that you care. Take an interest in others, show you can listen, before putting yourself across.

To continue to build your network, I suggest the following:

  • Use professional association meetings – live and online – to contribute to your CPD, and also start conversations with new contacts.
  • Update your LinkedIn profile, and consider how your other social media profiles may benefit from some ‘curation’.
  • Think ahead: where will next year’s new client contacts be meeting this month – again, live, or online?
  • How do you introduce yourself? Technical accuracy is less important than being interesting – and often interest can often come from highlighting a difference.

Having skirted the debate about whether it really is not what you know but who, the major developments over the last few years mean that if knowing people is relevant, how you get to know them becomes even more important.

Some further thoughts…  Dunbar’s number (extroverts – read the final paragraph)

and of course

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I help businesses to develop and grow by delivering high quality, interactive and tailored training workshops that give managers & business leaders the knowledge, skills and confidence to build their services, brands and people to achieve greater success.

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