Networking events have become an everyday custom in business. It is a no-brainer that who you know is more important than what you know. As a result, most people aspire to become good at networking because it has become an enabler for success in the world of business.
It can be the one thing that helps you land that killer promotion or raises funds for a new business.
At networking events, the “serial” networkers are often seen moving from one person to the next, keeping the conversations short and handing out business cards to everyone they meet.
Most people will speak to another party just long enough to gauge whether there is something they stand to gain from them. If there isn’t an identifiable benefit, they swiftly move on to the next person. They build connections only if there is something to be gained.
This approach to networking is not only distasteful but outdated.
Successful networking should be about what you can give, not what you can get from others. This approach is more effective in establishing healthy, long-lasting networking relationships.
The moment we shift our mindsets from what we stand to gain to what we stand to give, the networking experience becomes completely different. We listen more attentively and remain aware of the value that we can add to someone’s life or business, instead of purely what they can do for us.
When we eventually take their contact details, it is not because we hope to use them for something that we need – it is because we hope to add value to them. The relationship is established on the backbone of value creation, not one-sided exploitation.
You might end up with fewer business cards , but the quality of the relationships you stand to build is much higher. That is because reciprocity is part of the human psyche – eventually, people do give back to those who add value to them.
This approach to networking makes it easier for others to refer you or recommend you to others because they can speak from a personal experience of when you added value to them. They speak more confidently about you from first-hand experience. People are far less likely to put their reputations on the line for someone they cannot personally vouch for.
Networking relationships that begin from a value-creation base are better positioned for long-term success because of the genuineness of the interest in building the relationship – unlike the self-interested networking relationships we commonly build today.
This is especially important for the success of a new venture because entrepreneurs are constantly in search of help from others – potential suppliers, customers, partners, investors and employees.
Unfortunately, when entrepreneurs go to networking events, they end up investing too much time trying to identify the people who can help them instead of showcasing the value others could gain from the entrepreneur or their new venture.
We are often encouraged to put ourselves out there and woo others into giving us the help we need to succeed.
This can be daunting for most people. However, if we reframe this and put ourselves out there because we want to find opportunities to add value to others, the task becomes far less daunting.
When I first came across networkers who were genuinely interested in giving rather than taking, it felt strange. This is mainly because we live in a world where we become suspicious of others when they are being kind to us.
When I overcome this initial scepticism and invest in the relationship, I find these connections much healthier than the relationships built on the basis of the traditional approach to networking.
There is an old saying about friendship which goes: “When I went outside to find friends, I could not find one. When I went outside to be a friend, friends were everywhere.” This is similarly true in the world of networking.
It begins with being prepared to genuinely add value to the lives of other people.
SUNDAY TIMES OPINION BY ZIPHO SIKHAKHANE, 2016-09-25
Bridge skills gap to ready yourself for the top job
People are constantly in a race to make it to the top. We have been brainwashed to believe that ultimate success is about making it to the next level as fast as possible.
Companies reaffirm this way of thinking by promoting high performers while having limited regard for whether the person’s current role has prepared them for the senior ones that follow – roles which may require a different skill set.
This approach worked for a long time and made sense in the past when it took many years to get to the top. Companies banked on the fact that, at some point, the person would eventually acquire the skills needed to succeed in a big role.
This is not always true, especially if you look at the world of politics, where success tends to be influenced more by years of commitment to the political party and the relationships built over time than whether you have the skills to lead the party.
The traditional approach to promoting people is far less appropriate today because people are promoted faster and while much younger.
Studies show the average age of CEOs continues to decrease. The main challenge with this is that there is a higher risk of having CEOs and senior executives who have critical skills gaps and could make mistakes that would not be typical for someone at their level.
And the price for these mistakes can be high the higher the person is in the organisation.
The mistake is not in promoting people with limited years of work experience. It is important to infuse the kinds of leaders who can bring fresh, creative and innovative ideas to a changing world. The mistake is not empowering those leaders with the skills to succeed in the big role.
Notice my emphasis on skills acquisition, rather than years of experience.
The solution to this is not to revert to the old-school model of promoting people based on the number of years they have stuck around.
Leaders today need to challenge themselves in acquiring the skills needed to be ready for the bigger position.
We need to stop the cycle of wanting to climb higher without regard for how we are going to address our skills gap when we get there.
Organisations and their HR departments have an even bigger responsibility because they need to lead this mindset shift. They need to encourage and celebrate leaders who develop a wide variety of important management skills as much as they value climbing up the ladder.
It should not be an anomaly when someone prefers to shift to the same level in another department in order to learn new skills; this should be the norm for those who aspire to make it to the top.
There is a reason that companies such as GE are so successful at consistently developing leaders of CEO calibre. It is one of the few companies in the world that can claim to have created a high volume of successful CEOs and executives.
It achieves this by making sure that its fast-tracked development plan involves exposing its leaders to a variety of roles, functions and skills. Even though this happens in a short period, its leaders become successful because they are developed in a holistic way. They have fewer gaps in their management skills profile.
This approach is sometimes referred to as “horizontal development”, where individuals value developing adjacent skills that will help when they reach that big position.
This mindset shift is going to be tricky, especially among the current generation of millennials who have not been shown the value of using horizontal development.
Not addressing this is the reason that many young start-up company founders end up having to step down mainly because they were great at developing an innovative idea, in a small company, with a small team.
Steve Jobs of Apple, Andrew Mason of Groupon and Mike Lazaridis of BlackBerry are famous examples. Running a bigger venture requires a different skill set.
This mindset shift has big implications for young high performers because they are constantly being promoted, only to wake up one day, look back and realise all the growth areas they missed along the way.
This article was first published in the Business Times on 18 September 2016