I truly believe that every individual in the whole world is potentially only five or six contact steps away. This ‘five or six degrees of separation’ shows that even an entire population of over five billion people is still highly accessible.
However, for practical purposes, we don’t necessarily want or need to meet millions, or even thousands of people in different organisations, age groups, religions, professions, culture or places. We are just looking to develop a network that will eventually provide us with additional business.
Ideally, therefore, we need some kind of filtering or research system that will help us to build a set of relationships of high quality, or a strong network that can find people and resources both efficiently and effectively.
The first step in the filtering process is to establish what sort of contacts or relationships you think may be of value or benefit to you (or the organisation of which you are a part). This is not to run counter to the idea that networking is primarily about giving, but suggests that some relationships are clearly more valuable in the long-term for both sides, given careful thought in the first place. Only you can determine this ‘value’.
You may already know/be close to someone very powerful or influential, but gain no benefit from association. On the other hand, you may find someone in the street where you live who can bring you great benefit if you build a relationship with them. You just need to know what you’d like to achieve in order to make a reasonable assessment.
When you start to network more widely, you quickly realize that there is a pyramid, or hierarchy of depth or quality in all of your potential relationships.
At the base of the pyramid are what we call ‘suspects’. These are people who seem open to an approach to offer support. (Remembering my earlier point about giving and reciprocity).
It is usually better to find out more about suspects before approaching them in person. Many are often misidentified and only randomly picked. Only some suspects (when researched more closely) get to the next stage of becoming ‘prospects’.
Prospects are individuals who, research confirms, meet the effective network criteria and can usually be approached in person. Once again, initial conversation may reveal that not all prospects have been correctly identified. However, the numbers of people at this level are fewer and you can be much more patient in letting time provide an answer.
Contacts are prospects to whom you have offered support and advice and whose assistance or guidance you have requested on one or more occasions. At this stage, you may have discovered only minor opportunities to call, talk or contact one another, but the potential to do more has been established.
Advocates are contacts that are openly promoting or advocating the benefits of networking (with you in particular) to other prospects and contacts. Although this may not mean frequent contact, it is likely to be more frequent than with general contacts in your network.
Partners are the best and most effective networkers than you know, and the ones you most often call to chat to, to ask advice, or suggest ideas or options. By this stage, the relationship has generally reached a much higher level of mutual trust and understanding.
Using the Pyramid to Look For Opportunities
To begin to discover who might be your network suspects at the base of the pyramid, an excellent place to start is to read for opportunities much more widely.
This means becoming broadly alert to the many opportunities to network that may present themselves every single day. Many of these opportunities will be posted in newspapers, magazines, on notice boards, in advertisements, on the Internet and many other sources.
An increased alertness will count for little, unless you have a well thought through perspective on what you are looking for. There is no point in networking for the sake of networking. To an extent, this will depend upon your overall personal networking aims and objectives.
Possible networking goals
- To increase market share/customers
- To find new ideas
- To learn and develop yourself
- To find a job/work/career
- To find new colleagues/friends
- To pursue a hobby or interest
- To gain new perspective on topics of interest to you
- To go into business for yourself
Different Kinds of Networking Goals
Every one of these networking goals is a worthy aim in itself, but it is usually the case that only one or two goals of this type will apply at any one time. Consequently, your networking research efforts will be invested quite differently if your goals are broadly around work or career options, rather than if they are about starting up your own business.
Hence, although a few people will have very wide and diverse interests and a broad array of interesting contacts, our networking pyramids are built according to our specific goals and interest areas. This is often why we talk about a jobs network, a small business network, an education network and so on.