Leadership best practice: 7 tips to network your way to greater influence

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Networking tends to go by the wayside when one is employed. In fact, I find it to be one of the most underutilized – and powerful – tools in a leader’s toolbox. Developing a practice of ongoing networking helps you stay abreast of your organization and industry, foster mutually beneficial relationships, and build bridges across inter-departmental silos, all leading to better results for your company – and by extension – your career.

John came to see me because he felt completely stuck in his career. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to move into, but he longed for a change. We spent time together culling what was important to him about his work, and what the ideal next phase of his career would look like. After getting clear on his target role and employer and partnering with our team to hone his professional story, John started networking proactively, something he had not done in 10-15 years. He found himself feeling sheepish at the prospect of getting back in touch with folks he had been out of contact with for so long to ask for their help.

John worked through his reservations and reached out to connect with those close in his network. Contrary to bothering them, he found that folks were delighted to hear from him, leading to introductions to other people in positions of influence. Through these contacts, John found himself eventually fielding two exciting offers and accepting one. As he prepared to begin the new role, he set an intention to embody all that he had learned about himself through the career transition process. As a leader, he knew that ongoing networking – both inside and outside the company – would play an important part. In fact, over the next few months, informal and formal networking were the key drivers of his success in the new organization. 

Here are seven tips for networking effectively inside your organization:

  1. Take a look at who is networking well internally. Reverse engineer what they are doing to figure out how they do it, and what the results are. Consider meeting with those experts to learn their success formula.
  2. Reflect on who your key stakeholders are, outside of your direct chain of command. Who are your cross-functional internal customers and business partners? Make a list. 
  3. Craft a short agenda for a 1:1 session, including time to discuss your stakeholder’s key challenges and how sessions like these can provide ongoing value. To make sure you listen more than you talk, prepare open-ended questions – those that start with “What” or “How” – to get the other person talking. 
  4. Select a person from your list and reach out to request a short meeting, framing it as an opportunity to get to know their needs and collaboratively determine how your group can provide assistance. Follow-up within a few days if you don’t hear back, using a different contact method such as email, phone, or stopping by their office. If you receive no response after three attempts, move on to the next person. 
  5. As you prepare for the meeting, modify your communication style to fit the stakeholder’s personality and preferences to make sure your efforts land effectively. In other words, if a person is logical and likes you to get to the point quickly, handle the conversation differently than with a person who likes to be heard and nurtured.
  6. When the meeting starts, define together what type of regular interaction and updates would be helpful for them to stay on top of what is happening in both your areas and for the stakeholder to feel supported by your department and role. Provide context on projects that you are working on that may be relevant or helpful to their priorities. Follow-up promptly on items that you don’t have answers to at the moment. 
  7. Stay consistent with it. Best practice is to hold one of these sessions every week, rotating between stakeholders, consistently meeting at least quarterly to keep the relationships fresh and growing. In between sessions, send items of interest or value, including articles, quick progress updates, and other relevant information, without overdoing it. The goal is to stay on the stakeholder’s radar and be seen as a resource.

If you read through the tips above and feel uncomfortable, you are on the right track. Networking involves a “moving towards” energy and can represent a new way of operating for some, especially technical or introverted leaders. For others, it comes fairly easily and feels like breathing. The way you move from feeling uncomfortable to natural about networking is through proactive practice, experimentation, and refinement. When you accept going in that some relationships will grow more effectively and smoothly than others, you can release the death grip on feeling like you need to “do it right.” 

At its worst, networking can feel awkward; at its best, networking can open doors to unprecedented levels of influence, where you become known as a trusted advisor and confidant to those in position to impact your success and trajectory in the organization.