On many Southwest Airlines flights, after everyone has boarded and the airplane doors are about to close, flight attendants announce something like this: “This flight is going to Austin (or the appropriate city)—if you’re not going to Austin, you’re on the wrong plane.” I thought they were just joking, until a friend told me that on one recent trip a lady across the aisle from him jumped up and said, “I thought this plane was going to Las Vegas!” and quickly got off.
As an expert in developing strategic business relationships, I’ve watched a lot of people work hard to build their networks—but they are making connections that won’t help them get where they truly want to go. For your network to be truly effective, you need to apply the same level of planning and strategic thinking to building your relationships as you do to building your business or career.
Here are the four keys to finding and connecting with the people in the right “room” that can help you create a successful network.
#1. Find the right “room” for your goals.
Networking succeeds best when you’re looking for help in all the right places. You need to build connections in the “rooms” that are important for your business or career objectives. Do you want a promotion? Build connections with people in your company and industry. If you need permits to expand your small business, knowing your local councilperson, commissioner, mayor, or city planner is valuable. And remember, there are three “rooms” where everyone needs good connections: finance, civic/community, and their particular industry.
#2. Network for where you want to be, not where you are.
Because we feel safer with people like ourselves, we like to connect with others at our level of knowledge and skill. However, successful connectors reach out to people who are further along the career path or more influential in their industries. If you want a promotion, seek out company managers or executives. Ask them to mentor you, get on the company softball team with them, volunteer for their projects. (By the way, this is not “sucking up” if you are working to build relationships by adding consistent, appropriate value—see #3.)
#3. Add value consistently to every relationship.
The best relationships are those where both people can provide value to each other on a consistent basis. When you are just starting to establish a relationship, however, it’s important for you to add value consistently first—long before you ask anything of the other person. “Value” can be anything from time, work, knowledge, support, and so on. However, “value” is determined by the other person in the relationship, not you. Discover what the other person wants and needs and then do your best to provide it consistently.
One of the best ways of providing value is by giving someone access to your network. You may have a great tax accountant, for example, or the perfect coach for someone’s athletic child. Never underestimate the value your connections can provide to others.
#4. Ask the right person in the right room for the right level of help.
Let’s say you’re getting ready to run a media campaign to publicize the opening of your new office space. You’ve got your social media handled, but you would love some good local PR. The right people in the right room might include reporters for your city’s newspaper and TV stations (the right “rooms”). If you have build a relationship with a local councilperson, maybe you could get him or her to come to the opening, making it even more newsworthy. If you’ve been active with the local Chamber of Commerce, United Way, or other social and civic organizations, perhaps you can get them to sponsor your opening and thus gain more media attention. All of these are examples of asking the right people in the right “rooms” for the right level of help—based upon relationships that you have already developed.
Every connection in your network is important, but being strategic about developing connections that can advance your business or career is important, too. The key to a great network isn’t the number of contacts you make; it is the number of people in the right “rooms” with whom you develop lasting relationships by adding value. That way, you and your network can get to Austin, Las Vegas, or whatever your chosen destination is, together.