Adding mutual value in business relationships is a great way to build a network of people who can offer you information, resources and support to succeed over your career. In this article, we discuss networking and building business relationships, a topic our members ask about, whether as an ongoing process for career success, or specifically when they are joining a new organisation. We love that they, by asking, signal they are thinking of relationship-building in a strategic way while also appreciating that things get done through working with others.
Everything is attached to another human being. They write the cheques. They have the funding. They know about the job opportunities... Research for years has shown that your network equals your net worth.”
Using ideas from Judy Robinett, we discuss the importance of building and sustaining your network. Judy grew up in a very small town in the US and “didn't know anyone of wealth, power or influence”, yet over her career she learnt lessons and built relationships such that today she has “such a broad and deep network that I’m connected to almost any resource you may need, so I’m having fun”. The term “networking” can have negative connotations, conjuring up images of schmoozing, manipulating others for self-serving ends, superficiality, or rigidly diarised followups. Read more to explore Judy’s tips to focus our relationship-building on adding value (including her "three golden questions"), learn more from a Harvard Business Review article on networking in a new job, and see Judy’s book about strategic networking and one of her TEDx talks.
Judy Robinett’s background
Judy began her career as a social worker before obtaining a Masters in Economics. She has started businesses, and served as the CEO of both public and private companies. Her turnaround experience led to her being asked to help troubled companies including a “public biotechnology corporation that was broke, in litigation and had been delisted”. With experience of evaluating startups as investment opportunities too, she serves on several advisory boards of venture capital firms and accelerators, as well as private company boards to help them grow their businesses. Judy says her “biggest thrill is connecting with people and connecting them to each other”.
An old school network was who you knew, and what you knew. But new school is: who knows you. Because your reputation capital is now absolutely critical.”
Don’t keep your head down
Judy warns: "Research shows if you've been raised lower to middle class, you don't ask. We've been taught to keep our head down, work hard... and that someone will notice. I worked hard – and guess what – nobody noticed. But what I noticed was it mattered who you knew." Regular readers will note the parallels between this and the concepts of "performance currency" and "relationship currency" championed by Carla Harris.
Instead, Judy advises that we become connectors (and go-to-people) by being resourceful and scrappy on behalf of others. This, she says, will allow us to develop our strategic insights at the same time as placing us in the flow of opportunities we wouldn't have had access to. Our previous article on Personal Branding highlighted similar advice from Dorie Clark on becoming the "dot in the middle" i.e. acting as a connector.
Other people have the answers, deals, money, access, power, and influence you need to get what you want in this world. To achieve any goal, you need other people to help you do it."
Investing in relationship-building
It’s crucially important to be strategic about relationship-building so that over time you cultivate a “power network of people” (in order to tap into a “power grid of influence”). Judy refers to this as “strategic relationship planning”.
Your network is a critical asset and if you have quality people, you can quickly add value strategically to those you meet. Quality relationships give you access to ideas, opportunities, information and money.”
Judy emphasises the importance of “getting in the right room” as strategic networking requires that we determine where the people we need, who we can help or can help us, spend their time. She advises that we “find groups where people are smarter than you and/or have the resources you need to achieve your goal”, for example: “join a powerful organisation – volunteer for a group that has leaders, people of influence, gravitas, money” and “find [an industry or community event] or a conference... relevant to what you want to do… Get relationships established – so that you can have your finger on trends [and] the best information.”
She recommends focusing initial conversations on building a relationship and getting a second meeting (in person or virtual): “Listen, be authentic, be memorable and find common ground... build trust... Be real. Care". The relationship is pivotal as "people want to know you, like you, trust you and they’re looking for long-term relationships."
Judy says that with twenty-five to fifty quality relationships we can make anything happen. “...Quality trumps quantity every time. It doesn’t take gazillions of people on LinkedIn or Facebook. You want people who truly will have your back, and have your future... People [who], if you pick up the phone, they’ll return your call.” She also advises that we aim for a diverse set of business relationships, “spread across industries and geographies”. One way to engineer for diversity is to build your network from different sources e.g. political vs arts-focused volunteering. So, deeper and stronger relationships are better: focus on the key few and foster them, rather than searching for thousands of shallow relationships.
Talking to strangers
What I found out talking to other people was that everybody's got problems and everybody needs help. It was kind of a relevation... If I just did something really simple to help them, that I often had a friend for life, someone who could/might help me. And this was a wonderful thing for me to learn. But, the most profound thing that I learnt was when I started seeing a pattern. And that pattern was: your problem could be my solution. And then it occurred to me that it was all about matching."
She talks about this period in her life using words like "bravery", and elsewhere references the fear of her first (franchise) business facing bankruptcy. These and other experiences of taking risk taught her that experiencing fear is "not a bad thing. But you can’t let it hold you back from taking action. Every time you move out of your comfort zone and do something even a little risky, you build resilience.”
In a podcast interview with Matthew Pollard, they discuss how sharing with others where you are struggling strengthens your connection with them, and in Matthew’s words, “you will find, more often than not, they will go to the ends of the earth to help".
For more around bravery/courage, risk, fear and vulnerability, see our article about Brene Brown’s research.
Everybody needs help at one level or another and we all have gifts and so you just be a little scrappy and discover how you can create value for someone and you’re home free.”
Those we already know
However, it’s not only about talking to new people: “Most of us don’t even communicate with the network we already have... Meet with some of those people, share where you’re at, where you’re going, and ask [the golden questions] and just watch the magic happen”. She suggests we write down a list of one hundred people we know i.e. mapping our current network. By doing this, we will “start seeing obvious connections [we] could make. Introductions for people, but [we] also see holes that [we] can fill”.
Another benefit of strengthening the relationships with our existing connections is the genuine feedback we get from them. Judy says: “When I was younger, I was nervous about being criticised. It’s important to accept other people’s input and understand what others see in you that you don’t see in yourself”. She amusingly illustrates this with her younger self’s reaction to her advisory professor in Economics telling her that other students didn’t want to work with her because she was too aggressive: “Who cares about feelings – we’ve got work to do!”. Judy explains too that “you’ve got to talk to people because we all have [a] blind spot...When you get a little older in life, you get brave and ask people for some criticism or to help you get better, realising you need to make that a smaller blind spot so you can grow.”
Strategic networking is one of those unwritten rules of business success, says Judy: "Nothing happens without people, everyone needs help and most will help you if you ask.” She reiterates: "[Be] brave... Let people know where you are and then ask for some advice or some ideas and it’s startling."
Judy emphasises the importance of follow-through too i.e. reconnecting after the discussion and/or delivering on what you promised/suggested. Even simply making contact to say ‘thank you’ strengthens the relationship and can lead to additional opportunities.
Judy offers a number of suggestions about how to add value in our business relationships, explaining that a guiding principle for her “is to be generous and to add value. It may not come back from that person, but it always comes back”. One idea is to share/curate information such as article or book suggestions, which comes naturally to her as a “voracious reader and learner”. Another is to make an introduction to another person. A third is a combination where you forward a report or trending topic to three people in one message, letting them know about each other and that you feel it would be valuable for them to connect.
When building a new relationship with a successful person, you should aim to add value quickly. Judy says that doing your homework is critical: “Can you offer an introduction or information about business trend in their area of expertise? What problem can you help them solve?” Focus on them and listen intently to their goals before offering to help.
Judy is a believer in serendipity: “Saying yes, being generous, rethinking assumptions can get you into amazing opportunities you could not plan. You can create luck.”
Accelerating connection in a new environment
We now turn to the insights Rob Cross and Peter Gray set out in a Harvard Business Review article “The Best Way to Network in a New Job”. These apply the concepts of building new business relationships in the specific context of someone joining a new organisation, but they are also relevant in other new environments.
Rob and Peter are both professors in the US, and they argue that we should cultivate allies when in a new environment. They say that “replicating the network of an established employee in a strong culture typically takes three to five years”, and they have researched ways to accelerate the process.
They warn employers that employee brand-building across a very broad network is correlated with the employee leaving after two-to-four years, possibly as a result of wider exposure outside the company itself. Andy Lopata, a commenter on the article, referred to this activity by employees as “broadcasting”. Rob and Peter make the argument that successful (and committed) joiners instead are more selective and less superficial in their engagement with others, using their exploratory meetings to “ask plenty of questions, offer expertise and assistance where they were able, create mutual wins, and generate energy”. They explain that Greg Pryor of Workday describes this as pulling people into your network rather than pushing your way into theirs.
The HBR article says that early contact with key opinion leaders is important for the newcomer’s success. These are people “well connected in the organisation’s networks, who [can] confer know-how and legitimacy”. Forming affinity groups with fellow newcomers is also helpful.
TEDx talk: Connect and Create
To end, we offer a video of Judy presenting at TEDx Sacramento, touching on some of the themes above in her 14 minute talk "Connect and Create":
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