As an area for focus in the New Year, I wanted to highlight the one skill that I’ve seen yield a huge impact on the founders that develop it: The ability to network.
I have consistently seen good networking skills make a big difference for founders, not only in terms of fundraising, but also in terms of finding employees, clients, and partners for their company. The old adage of “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is very much consistent with what I’ve observed over the years. As such, it is just as valuable to invest in yourself in this area as investing in the more ‘obvious’ areas such as company building mechanics (marketing, etc).
So if you’re sold on wanting to improve your networking skills, the big question is always “where do I start?” (Particularly if this is an area you don’t feel comfortable with).
Over the past couple of years, and as part of my ongoing own personal journey, I have also researched this area and am happy to share a few ideas on where you can start if you are the kind of person that is panicked by the idea of building a network and having to go out to many startup events where you will meet many new people.
The self-learning route
The easiest place to start is the self-learning route: two books which I rank very highly in this space include Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferazzi and the Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane. These books really help you understand many of the social queues that are necessary for you to effectively network and they do a good job of explaining the ‘why’ of all things social, which is necessary for you to understand and internalise before going out and practicing your skills. These are ‘must reads’.
Next, if you want to step it up a bit, engaging with a professional coach can help you understand how to overcome some of the challenges you may have the prevent you in networking effectively. A coach doesn’t necessarily set the goals for you, but instead helps you ‘digest’ what might be good steps to take to achieve what you set out to achieve considering all the variables you may have at play. One coach I’ve had the chance to spend time with and see the results of is Mike Herman. He has worked with a few of our companies and I have seen founders progress in areas that had previously affected them quite a bit in interrelating with peers or shareholders. Yes, coaching works.
Improvisational comedy course
Lastly, the most extreme step is to enrol in an improvisational comedy course. I tried out imprology.com here in London. Boy was I in for a surprise. It was like shock therapy, but it gave me a crash course in some of the social dynamics that connect us to others that we frequently forget or ignore when out socialising. Oh, and if you think improvisational comedy is all about telling jokes, you couldn’t be further from the truth; I don’t think we told a single joke during the entire program, rather it was about learning to be open enough to be able to read others and react to their signals.
Key concepts that arose during the improvisation course were how to amplify other people’s emotional offers. meaning many times we are too closed in the way we converse and don’t pay attention (perhaps because we are too busy thinking about what to say next!), and that just doesn’t work in improvisation. Another key concept in improvisation is understanding the inherent social status we all have relative to each other and how that can change in different circumstances, and how violating status hierarchies can drastically affect how others perceive you. Lastly, by practicing these concepts and dealing with the anxiety you will naturally feel as you experiment, you start to learn to identify social offers that others give you to engage with them. The closest I can liken to taking an improvisation course is to jumping into a freezing pool of water on human social interactions. A bit radical, but can help tie various concepts together. BTW, the accompanying book, Impro by Keith Johnstone, is also an amazing read into how people interrelate; a must read if you take a course.
In the end, all of this takes practice, time and patience, there are no shortcuts. You need to put in time at events and meeting people, there just is no other way. One thing that was constantly said during improvisation class was ‘don’t beat yourself up’ when you don’t have the expected outcome. We are all pretty good at beating ourselves up, but if you are going to work on these skills and they don’t come naturally to you, they will take perseverance and patience with yourself and the natural anxieties you will feel. However, by identifying which skills you need to polish and working on those methodically, at least you can work more ‘smartly’.