Networking isn’t to sell yourself. It’s to make connections


Welcome to Leader Talk! In episode 32 we had the pleasure of speaking with Alison Attard, Executive Director at BNI Global (Sydney South West). 

With her extensive experience working in the industry, Alison suggests that networking has a significant role in every business. She strongly believes that networking would allow business owners to increase the number of prospects and opportunities for their business.

In this chat we spoke about how networking is not about selling yourself, why you should be selective and specific with your connections, and how there is power in proximity. 

Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with Alison on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by Alison Attard, Executive Director at BNI Global (Sydney South West).

There’s always going to be someone who has walked the path before you. Whether you’re a business owner or an employee, we all need someone to go to for advice and to learn. That’s where networks come in. It’s not just about finding a job, client, or business partner. It’s about gaining and sharing knowledge – not just for your professional growth, but your personal growth too. That’s why, even as a natural introvert, I chose to push myself out of my comfort zone and learn how to network effectively – because if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

When I first started networking, I had no concept of what it was. I came from the finance industry in the 80s and 90s where networking meant smoking cigarettes all day or attending boozy lunches where nothing was achieved. Since joining BNI, I’ve learnt what networking truly means. Many people think they know how to network simply because they’re able to talk to other people. But, there is actually a way to network efficiently and effectively. In this article, I’ll share with you the best ways to gain the most out of networking.

It’s not about selling yourself
You know the saying, ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care?’ This is completely true in all our relationships, especially in our networks. It’s a common misconception that, in order to network successfully, you need to know how to ‘work a room’ or be talkative in order to stand out. I’ve discovered that the best way to network is actually to listen.

Have you ever been to a networking event, and everyone is just trying to sell themselves to others? So many people attend events thinking they need to educate people on who they are, what they do, and how they can help. In doing so, they don’t find out about the person they’re talking to. If everyone’s there to sell, then who’s there to buy? I always say to the BNI Australia members, it’s not about this ‘spray and pray’ ritual where you hand out a bunch of your business cards and hope to get a call back. That just doesn’t work – in fact, you’ll probably drive people away.

The reason 85% of job vacancies are filled through networking is because that’s how genuine relationships are being made between employer and employee. Because of this, often when I attend networking events, I don’t bring any business cards, nor do I even talk about myself. I ask other people questions because I want to create relationships.

Think about computer networks. We link them together to allow the computers to operate interactively and share information. Interaction means it’s not a one-way street, it’s reciprocal. So, in networking you must be open to helping others. Why? Well, for one it makes you look good, but more so because of a principle called Givers Gain. If I help you, then somehow, somewhere down the line, you’re going to want to help me in return.

Networking groups like BNI consist of members that genuinely want to share and help each other, and themselves grow. Whenever I have a problem, I talk about it with these people and more often than not, they know someone who can solve it or who has already been through it themselves. And because they’ve helped me, I naturally want to help them.

A network is a community – everyone wants to support each other, and we all want to see each other grow. That’s why I like to say as networkers, we’re farming rather than hunting. We’re in it for the long run. We want to plant the seeds and build the relationships rather than attack people with our business cards and essentially scare everyone off!

Be selective and be specific
With today’s technology we have access to so many people, however, it’s important to remain selective and specific in the networking process for the sake of your own reputation and time. Yes, you might have an extensive network on LinkedIn and Facebook which may even lead you to believe the bigger the network, the better off you are because you have all these resources. The truth is, it takes a lot of brain power to navigate through and maintain networks. There is only so much time in a day, and we as employers and employees want to make sure we use that time effectively and ensure we’re able to manage everything.

I’m sure you have experienced a time where you’ve spread yourself too thin (I know I have!). You thought it would be great to make all these connections and you make plans with each of them, then you can’t keep up and those plans ended up falling through. In effect, you diminished your reputation by spreading yourself too thin. We don’t have to do this. A study by the Royal Society has shown that the maximum number of people you can choose to connect with is, on average, 132. Within a group of 132 people, you only really need to maintain 4 or 5 links to navigate that network. Even though technology and social media, like LinkedIn and Facebook, have expanded our network it’s best to focus on quality over quantity because those 4 or 5 genuine links can take you a long way.

On that note, always be specific. Sure, networking is as simple as having a conversation with someone, but that conversation should always have a purpose. When communicating within a network, always have a specific idea on who you want to talk to, what you want to talk about and what you want to gain from that conversation. If you’re not specific, then how are you going to get what you really want? If I ask you to give me a car, what sort of car are you going to give me? Well, the possibilities are endless really. What if I said to you, I actually want a black Mercedes-AMG E53? I’d be much closer to getting what I want instead of just getting what you think I want. That two-millimetre adjustment on specificity will make a world of difference.

Going into a conversation with a specific objective will ensure you won’t be spending an hour of your life you’re not going to get back. Ideally, you would want to come out of those meetings having specified a good short-term referral for that person, a good long-term referral and a good referral source.

Like any relationship, building a network takes a lot of time and energy, but that’s why it’s called net-‘working’. You really have to work for it once you figure out what it is you want. Yes, it’s building connections, but it’s through making that two-millimetre adjustment that you will actually get what you want in life.

Proximity is power
Entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I agree. The people you surround yourself with influence the person you become, and they can bring you up just as much as they can bring you down. So, networking really starts from your close circle. Who are you surrounding yourself with most of the time and who might they know who can help you? This sentiment translates even when you’re networking in a room full of hundreds of people – if you start with the proximity, aiming to connect with just one person in the room with a specific objective in mind, it will be much more effective than ‘spraying and praying’ with your business cards.

I like to think of networking like tying a shoelace. It was such a struggle when we first learnt to tie our shoelaces, right? But now we do it without thinking. Although networking may seem daunting and cumbersome at first, it’s something you can learn to do if you decide that it’s something that’s important to you. Call it ‘networking’ but really, it’s just being with people in a room, making connections.

At the end of the day, we are social beings. So regardless of where you are in life and where you want to go, networking is one thing you can rely on to get you to the next stage. You might see a room of 200 people and overthink all the things you need to do, but I challenge you to connect with just one person and do it genuinely and purposefully. The rest will come easily.