GNcareers, from Gulf News

How valuable is your network?

GNJudy Goddard and William Jones l Image Credit: Supplied

DUBAI: Networking is considered such a key business skill that many MBA courses include it as part of the curriculum. But what it is? How do you network effectively? How do you judge your network’s worth?

We asked several networkers from the UAE business community to share their tips.

As with many soft skills, the value of networking is extremely difficult to measure. It’s not even easy to know what people mean by the term ‘networking’.

Last year, in an interview in the Harvard Business Review, the entrepreneur Richard Stromback, an uber-networker nicknamed Mister Davos for his extensive contacts among global business and political leaders, declared that 99 per cent of networking events were a waste of time.

What he found worthless were the seminars and exhibitions packed with information to be found elsewhere. “That’s not where the highest value is,” he told the magazine. “What you can’t get outside of Davos is the ability to have so many face-to-face interactions which either initiate or further key relationships.”

Why is networking so important? William Jones, academic dean of the SBS Swiss Business School in Al Hamriya, Ras Al Khaimah, teaches networking to his MBA and BBA students. “I think a lot of people don’t understand the term,” he said. “To some people it even has a negative connotation — they think it’s sort of dirty.”

In fact, he said, networking is simply getting to know people, gaining information from them and — as a network relationship develops — gaining and giving assistance and even becoming friends.

These personal connections come into play when you need something above and beyond the regular services a company will provide. “It’s very, very difficult to quantify,” Jones added. “The way I look at a traditional network is, when you’re in times of need how effective is it? You could have a network of 8 million people on Facebook and have no one who would do anything for you.”

Amy Piek, director of strategic communications at FTI Consulting, Dubai, said: “Networking conjures images of awkward conversations with people from unrelated industries thrown together with the expectation of somehow finding ‘value’.

“However, it is just a word for actively making and developing professional relationships, about simply being intellectually curious about others and meeting and learning about new people.

“Your network is crucial to your personal and professional development and provides valuable opportunities to expand your community.”

Like Piek, Jones considers networking one of the key pillars of personal life as well as professional life. It’s “massively important”, he said.

Jones cited the example of a colleague who is extremely effective in registering new students. “The only difference between her sales technique and others is that she has an extremely large network. That generates referrals.”

Many people regard networking as a means of finding the next job in their career.

Judy Goddard is a Middle East recruitment specialist who’s worked for Apple, Microsoft and Emirates group. She has no doubt of the value of networking. “Prospective candidates need to be visible in the market place in order for recruiters to identify and introduce them to organisations. You need to build a brand that is visible, respected, open and approachable. Both virtual and face-to-face networking contribute to these factors in a highly impactful way.”

Jonathan Howell-Jones, a Dubai-based MBA holder who works in the public sector, said: “Networking is underrated when it comes to developing your career goals and aspirations. Many people assume that networking is just making contacts and acquaintances but never apply any actual focus on why they are networking. Most people do it to be seen, known, and considered for work but don’t always focus on where they want to work and what sort of careers they want. As a result, this can waste a lot of time and effort.

“The most useful advice I can offer when networking is to have an idea of what sort of job you want and then focus on reaching out to the people who will employ you. These aren’t necessarily the HR staff or even the heads of large companies, although people who run small or medium businesses are better bets, it’s the people who will be your line managers or one rank higher. They are the ones who will have the main deciding power on recruitment.

“If possible, always get someone within the company to send your CV to the right person. That’s an instant reference and signal of approval and a cost-saver for the company if it’s having to rely on recruitment agencies and advertisements to find the right candidate. In 14 years of living in Dubai I’ve never had to apply for an advertisement because networking achieves the best results.”

While many stress the value of face-to-face networking, social media is an increasingly important method of extending your network and visibility. A spokeswoman for LinkedIn said the platform currently has 2 million members in the UAE, and 433 million globally, and was adding 2 members a second worldwide.

Goddard believes online networking is more valuable than many realise. “The majority of your time should be focused on online networking activities but followed up with face-to-face activities such as coffee meetings and relevant industry events.

“The impact of face-to-face interaction will always outweigh an online interaction. However, you need to ensure you are investing your face-to-face interactions efficiently therefore invest your time with directly beneficial people and industry events.” 

Top tips for effective networking

1) Be yourself

Stromback told the Harvard Business Review: “Everyone gets this wrong. They try to look right and sound right and end up being completely forgettable. I’m having a ball just being myself.”
Jones advises: “You need to be authentic.”

2) Don’t seek advantage

Jones: “It isn’t all about business. Don’t keep looking at the bottom line.”

Stromback told the Harvard Business Review: “Nobody wants to have a ‘networking conversation,’ especially those who are at the highest levels of business and politics. They are hungry for real conversations and real relationships. It just has to be authentic, genuine and sincere.”

3) Don’t rush

Jones: “I always tell my students that you need to take the time to talk to people and be friendly. You never know — the business world is small.”

Goddard: “You will need to be generous in your time, feeding your network with ideas, supporting introductions, sharing relevant content. It takes time, effort, a generous attitude and a long-term view, to really see the significant impact on your professional life.”

4) Use your people skills

Amy Piek: “If you listen more than you speak, have an open-mind and spend time planning, you will not find networking a waste of time.”

5) Engage

Jones: “You need to be part of multiple different social groups. Be involved in several different social activities that aren’t traditionally solo activities.”

Goddard: “Don’t discount social interactions especially in a country like the UAE where you are often exposed to an eclectic range of profiles in social settings; I have met several clients and candidates through my personal, social interactions”

6) Teamwork

Goddard: “Face-to-face networking is best done in pairs; it’s less daunting and the fact that someone else is validating your credibility instead of yourself, builds gravitas and trust with your audience.” 

Top tips for online networking

Goddard: “Ensure your LinkedIn profile picture is appropriate, approachable and professional. Optimise your LinkedIn profile with key words that will identify you as a suitable candidate to the role in question. Ensure you build a Connections pool that is relevant but not limited to direct peers and industry professionals; be proactive in connecting and accepting requests.”

LinkedIn advise aiming for an ‘all-star’ profile: make sure you have a profile picture, at least 50 connections, up-to-date employment details, employment and educational history, and a minimum of 3 skills. Ask for recommendations from friends and colleagues, engage in groups and join conversations to extend your contact network. Follow news and influencers to stay up to fate, and use the publishing platform to share news and updates.

Source: Andrew Staples, Chief Business Reporter, gulfnews.comGN