The first quarter of the calendar year typically yields articles from experts extolling the importance of networking. We nod, shrug, and think to ourselves, “Yes we should go out and network!”
Yet sometimes work and life events arise that put a damper on our enthusiasm. Sometimes our role as in-house counsel leads us to believe we have no need to
network since that is only required for those in private practice. Sometimes networking seems like very little return for the amount of time and effort.
A friend once asked me about my “return” on networking. My answer was that I don’t have a magic number to quantify my networking efforts. This answer is akin to checking the “return” you get from eating smarter or spending more time with loved ones. You won’t necessarily see results immediately, but over time the fruits of these activities can pay off. It just means doing a little so that over time you get massive results. Personally, I’ve found networking to be beneficial in the following ways:
• Having a support group of other in-house counsel who’ve “been there;”
• Learning something new from others;
• Serendipity — chance encounters that can lead to meaningful exchange.
Outside the box
There are the obvious networking events such as industry/legal conferences and bar association socials. Yet one untapped
resource are non-networking events. For example, if you’re a parent bringing your child to practice for hockey, ballet, and soccer, there is an under-tapped resource: other parents. As you have something already in common you have a huge icebreaker compared to the artificiality that haunts many planned networking events.
I raise this example because you can change your mindset and see daily activities as potential networking events offering more diversity in the types of people you would meet.
The anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with the number 150 as the number that represents how many people you can have a truly meaningful relationship with.
With LinkedIn taking off as a tool for professionals, Dunbar’s number is interesting because it makes one wonder about the efficacy of accumulating more and more LinkedIn connections — massing more connections can only get you so far.
Networking is a contact sport
Some sports, like golf or tennis, typically require one key move: follow-through in your swing. Networking is the same — follow-through is more important than gaining numbers. Follow-through enables meaningful contact. In order to have meaningful contact, it means having a genuine interest in the other person. A buzzword thrown around is “ping-ing” — where you make small talk via e-mail, LinkedIn messaging, or other social media tool. The best kind of contact is adding value to someone else. To add value to someone else, you have to know what they need. Hence the need to ping a connection with a quick follow-up to get the conversation started.
This is where most people fail. Following through takes time and effort. The good news is that you can stand out by simply getting started. Adding value to another person will catapult you in their minds.
Hacks to networking events
Of course to follow through, you need some contacts. Some networking authors suggest starting with those you already know. While this is a good starting point, there have been some groundbreaking studies concluding the most valuable contacts you have may be the “loose connections” you do not have a long-term relationship with. So you need to get out to events. I used to dread events until I figured out some small hacks:
• Listen twice as much as you speak.
• Always carry your drink in your left hand so you can shake hands with your right.
• Eat something before a networking event — it’s hard to talk or pay attention when you’re stuffing your mouth and wiping your hands.
• Re-frame these events as a way to meet new people and learn something new.
• Be present and enjoy the moment.
I write this to encourage in-house counsel, no matter what level of experience, to be mindful of networking in your life and career. Too often we think networking is only for salespeople or law firm partners. That denies the reality of the impact networking can have on your life. I think of networking as digging your well before you are thirsty. Too often people reach out to people only when they are in dire need of a job or favour. If you have followed through with your network, you put yourself in a better position to enjoy the help your network can provide you.
Jonathan Lau is legal counsel with TV Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.