How to Make Networking Work For You

If not properly managed, networking can be a necessary evil, both feared and ignored by many accountants, or a way to over schedule yourself into feeling busy, without actually having any quantifiable return to show for the time investment.

For me, networking sits somewhere in the middle where I now expect solid connections that stay with me as I continue to grow my career.

After a few years of owning my own consultancy and coming close to closing a decade of work as an accounting consultant, I’ve learned a few things that help focus my networking efforts, allowing me to balance my entrepreneur hat portfolio of boss/manager, sales person and technician.

In a nutshell, professional services consultants must find a balance. Unlike manufacturing companies or other product-driven sales organizations, our time is our product and we have to respect it accordingly.

There are a few different avenues to network. Finding your balance of different networking outlets is the first step.

General Networking Groups. General networking groups and events are everywhere. It takes some time to decide on the mix that will work for you. However, the upside to a general networking group or event lies in the exposure to completely new people. While some of these groups have a certain focus, others are pretty general. Some are paid, and others simply require the time to find them. Find Them Online: Meetup, BNI, library websites and chamber of commerce sites.

Thought Leader or Knowledge-based Networking. If you’ve ever been to a LinkedIn group or possibly coached as part of a group, you participated in a knowledge-based networking group. It’s a great way to meet prospective clients or other industry professionals and show value. I’ve made strong, long-term connections this way, both online and offline. Find Them Online: LinkedIn, MosaicHub and professional association websites.

Education-based Networking. Learning about something new can also lead to meeting new connections. This gives you an opportunity to develop strong long-term connections. Find Them Online: Score, SBA and local business development organization websites.

Social Networking. Ah, the Facebook pages and the Twitters. When it comes to social networking, your professional face becomes your personal one as well. Nowadays, the professional and personal networking lines keep crossing paths. If you aren’t comfortable with sharing personal details or events with your professional colleagues, you will want to be aware of your list, privacy, and other settings. Find Them Online: Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Now that you have your basics down, how should you go about it?

Budget the hours you will spend on networking, and stick to it: Don’t attend every morning business meetup with a free continental attached, unless you just really like free breakfast. Try to expand your outlook and reach outside of your immediate circle. If a few meetings don’t result in a strong connection, contact, or referral, move onto another group. Shake it up a little, whether it be in geographic area or otherwise.

Know who you are out to meet: Whether you are out to meet colleagues, prospects, or just out to learn about a new topic, go to your networking event with a focus in mind.

Networking with related industries, such as banking professionals, small business marketing consultants and graphic designers, has its own unique potential. Not only are you meeting colleagues, but you are also meeting prospective clients through word of mouth.

In addition, don’t be afraid to ask a colleague, “Hey, I’m trying to find some x opportunities. Do you have any contacts or ideas?” A warm introduction is always preferred to a cold call, and most people like being asked for their opinion, and to help out.

Be a thought leader: Everyone should be a thought leader. We’ve entered an era where, in business at least, everyone is looking for an expert with an edge, and your unique ideas or approach will become your calling card. Develop some unique (keyword – unique) content and ideas, don’t be afraid to show your passion and voice, and be someone others can come to for advice.

Show and bring value: Networking is two-sided. It’s important to add value to a new networking relationship, and for it to be mutually beneficial. At the very least, it’s good to have a colleague to bounce ideas off of. Eventually, many networking contacts will fade away, but the truly valuable ones will always be there.

The idea is to have a nice mix of networking events that provide a balanced spread of exposure, knowledge-growth, and other benefits, without eating away your day. While you don’t want to introduce yourself with dollar signs in your eyes (we can all see them from a few hundred yards away, guys), walking into mutually beneficial and naturally fitting business relationships is always going to help your business and network grow.