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How to Network 102: Continuing to Learn

“Giving connects two people, the giver and the receiver, and this connection gives birth to a new sense of belonging.” ~ Deepak Chopra

 Last week I wrote about some lessons I have learned from attending networking events. I titled that post “Networking 101: Some lessons learnt”. This week I want to expand on that theme. Networking is more than just a buzzword. Taking the time to network and build relationships is an important skill. Networking creates connections with others, and expands our circle of learning and support. It is more than meeting people or connecting with them at events or online, it involves building mutually advantageous links from which you can learn and benefit one another.

“The single greatest ‘people skill’ is a highly developed & authentic interest in the *other* person.” ~ Bob Burg

Most people think of networking in terms of their own needs or what they hope to gain from the networking relationship. However, I want to shift your focus from what can you get out of it to what can you give. Think about what you have to offer people instead of what you need from them. You expand your own network when you think in terms of what you can offer as well as what you need from others. You begin to seek out people to whom you can offer your expertise and talents rather than just those who have something to offer you. Seeing yourself as someone with much to offer also helps to boost your self-confidence.

When you network with others, it’s critical to identify others’ interests.

  • Look for common interests and goals, as well as areas in which you have something to offer yourself.
  • Ask about their goals and interests. How do they line up with yours?
  • How can you integrate your interests with others’ to find common ground?
    • What goals do you have in common?
    • What can you offer of yourself to help others reach their goals?
    • How can they help you reach your goals?

Focusing on ways in which your goals and interests integrate with others’ helps create a strong, powerful network that goes beyond simple friendship.

“You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” ~ Zig Ziglar

In order to network successfully, you must be able to reach out. There are many ways to do this, both online and in person. One of the easiest ways to reach out is to join professional social networking sites such as LinkedIn, and look for people in your industry or who share your interests. Join groups, both online and in person: professional groups and associations, groups that promote skills you want to develop (such as Toastmasters) and groups that work for causes you value are all good choices.  Check out your local Chamber of Commerce or downtown business group. No matter what method you choose, as obvious as it might seem, the important part of networking is to talk to people! In last week’s post I covered what you need to do to be prepared in approaching people. Following up on that initial contact is the next step. Be responsive when people contact you via email or phone; for example, send a thank you note when someone agrees to connect with you on LinkedIn. Make time in your schedule each week to work on networking – schedule it as you would any other important task. Use your soft skills – listening actively, projecting self-confidence, build others up – as you network.

How to Network 101 – Some Lessons learnt

networking group

A typical networking interaction may go like this: “What do you do?” or “Tell me about your business.” What is your response? Are you prepared to answer in a way that will engage the asker, perhaps even to the point of persuading them to meet with you and ultimately purchase your product or service? That’s why you are there, right? To network?

Unfortunately at most networking events I attend, the answer to that question I most often hear is, “I’m a <role> and I work for <company>”. If the person is a little more on top of it I hear “I’m <name> and I’m a <role> with <company>, we do <brief description of what company does/offers>”.

I don’t consider myself as an expert in networking. However when I look at the numerous “courses” and workshops that are currently available and are designed to help people with networking, it seems to me that I have learned just as much from simply being an active, engaged net-worker. Over the past several years I have gained as much experience and knowledge as most of these so called experts.

Here some of the things I have learned:

  • Have your business card ready. You would be surprised at how many people I meet at networking events who don’t have a card with them.
  • Attend with intent. Know why you are there! If your intention is to meet with the most people you possibly can, perhaps your real intent is to raise your profile, so have something to use to achieve that. If your intention is to set future meetings to provide a more in-depth presentation on your service or product, be ready for that.
  • Be prepared, be proactive
    • Approach others; don’t wait for them to approach you.
    • Be ready with a solid opening question – practice it.
      • Instead of asking, “What do you do?” ask “What brings you to this event tonight?” Then follow up with a question that would tie what this person does to their reason for attending.
    • Follow up with other open-ended questions that will encourage the person to engage with you.
  • Be ready to answer questions. When someone asks what you do, be ready with a succinct reply. Practice it!
    • Use a story to illustrate what your business or role: you could relate an experience that describes how you helped someone with your product or service.
    • Adjust as you go. Be flexible and ready to tailor your response to each individual and situation.
    • Have a “call to action” ready. While there, set up an appointment to connect later if you can. This means having your calendar at your disposal.

 

When someone asks you at a networking event, “Who are you, what do you do?” will you be ready?

The Soft Skill Art of the Critique

My last three posts have focused on the ability to learn — an incredibly important soft skill, perhaps even more so than self-awareness, since without it there is no ability to grow or improve. This may be the ultimate “the chicken or the egg” scenario. What comes first: self-awareness or the ability to learn?

Last week’s post focused on criticism and our ability to handle critical feedback, and dealt mostly with how to handle criticism, or critical feedback, from the receiver’s point of view. At the end of that post I asked, is there really such a thing as positive, or constructive, criticism? This week I try to answer that question.

There are things we can control and there are things we cannot. We can’t control how others give critical feedback to us, but we can control how we receive it. Likewise we can control how we give critical feedback, but not how others receive it. That being said, if we do our part in framing critical feedback in a positive way, we may minimize negative reactions.

Daniel Goleman gives a perfect example of this in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (1997, Bantam) when he describes criticism leveled at an engineer by a manager after a product presentation. The manager is quoted as stating, “How long have you been out of graduate school? These specifications are ridiculous. They have no chance of getting past my desk”. These comments destroyed the confidence of the engineer, who had spent weeks with his team compiling the facts, information and presentation. When the manager was asked about his comments, he had no idea of the effect it had on the engineer. For him it was a “throwaway line” and in actual fact he thought the project had promise and just needed more work. Goleman offers this alternative set of comments: “The main difficulty at this stage is that your plan will take too long and so escalate costs. I’d like you to think more about your proposal, especially the design specifications for software development, to see if you can figure out a way to do the same job more quickly”. This is what Goleman called the Artful Critique, which “focuses on what a person has done and can do rather than reading a mark of a character into a job poorly done”. It motivates rather than demotivates, and as Bradberry and Greaves stated, “Whenever you show you care, you can help other people to better understand what is important…” (2005, Fireside).

It is important to give feedback in a way that does not criticize. You can do that by first checking your emotional stance. Be specific and clear about expectations. Also, if you are in the habit of regularly praising others and expressing appreciation for them and what they do, when the need for a difficult conversation arises, you have created the climate in which it is more likely to be heard and appreciated for its true intention. It is what Sparrow and Knight refer to as creating a “climate of supportive response rather than silence or endless criticism” (2006, Jossey-Bass).

So how can you give positive, affirming criticism?

  • Be specific: Talk about a specific example or case. Don’t just say they are doing “something wrong”. Reference what the person is doing well along with what they are not doing well. Go straight to the point; don’t be evasive. If it’s helpful, script it out and have notes to which you can refer.
  • Ask for and be prepared to offer a solution: Lead a discussion on how the other person may be able to resolve the issue or challenge. Listen to them and offer alternatives that may not have occurred to them. Be open to compromise if possible. Look for the second, third or even fourth “right” solution. Whatever the solution is, make sure you cover its expectations and that any timelines are clear.
  • Be present: both criticism and praise are best done in person. If that is not possible, try then for a video link or a phone conversation. Don’t use written electronic media. There is no way an email or written memo can deliver a message with the tone and inflections you intend it to have.
  • Be sensitive: This is another way of being “present”. It is being empathic, listening to understand and being aware of how the other person is interpreting your comments. Be open to “hearing” concerns or issues that are not being spoken aloud and ask questions to draw them out.

If we remember that the reason for all of the above is to grow, learn and improve, and that being either the recipient or the giver provides a way to learn. This gives us a joint solution and a shared responsibility and accountability. Self-awareness or learning — what comes first? Is it really important?

 

Criticism and the Ability to Learn

My guess is that not many people like to be criticized. Those who do have most likely learned that listening to criticism is a good way to learn. That doesn’t mean it is easy — our egos often get in the way. We tend to see criticism as a personal attack (and sometimes that is indeed the critic’s actual intention) however being able to separate the emotional reaction and to then reflect on the actual message can lead to some significant personal and professional growth. Building on what I wrote earlier about self-confidence, the ability to listen to criticism is based on your personal confidence in your own abilities, and knowing that there can always be room for improvement. Finally, listening to others’ feedback shows them that you value what they have to say and respect their viewpoint, and provides evidence to them that you value your own growth.

I like criticism. It makes you strong. — LeBron James

The following are some thoughts on how to effectively deal with criticism from 10 Soft Skills You Need (2015, Global Courseware Inc.):

Wow, You Mean I’m Not Perfect?

It can come as a shock when we get feedback that we’re not as perfect as we might like to think. However, one of the hallmarks of a confident person is the willingness to recognize mistakes and accept that sometimes we are wrong. The key is to keep the focus on improvement, not on defending ourselves or on the reasons why we did the thing we are being criticized for. When you accept that you’re not perfect, you will have gained a valuable skill. Remember that no one expects you to be perfect, they just expect you to be the best you can. And criticism is offered in the spirit of helping you achieve excellence, not to make you feel bad.

Listen with an Open Mind

Your active listening skills come in very handy when you’re learning to accept and learn from criticism. It is tempting to defend ourselves when we receive criticism, but it is vital to resist this. When someone offers you feedback or criticism, listen with an open mind. You may not agree with all (or any) of what he or she has to say, but it is important to hear the person out. Reflect back what you understand the person to have said, and check for understanding. Answer any questions non-defensively, and do not interrupt. Listen to understand, not to respond.

Analyze and Learn

After someone has given you feedback or criticism, it is fine to ask for time to consider what he or she has said. Always thank the person for the feedback. Take time to analyze the feedback and decide what items you want to act on. Give yourself time, especially if you feel defensive. Even if you do not agree with everything the person said, see what you can draw out of the feedback that you can learn from. When you have analyzed the feedback, choose some action items that you can use going forward. You should then investigate training, mentoring, or other ways in which you can improve on in the areas of feedback that you think are valid. If you have difficulty analyzing the feedback, seek out the help of a supervisor or trusted colleague.

Clear the Air and Don’t Hold Any Grudges

Even when it’s not meant to be, criticism and feedback can feel extremely personal. When someone gives you feedback, it’s important to clear the air and not hold onto any bad feelings or grudges. Take the time to thank the person for his or her time, and for caring enough to give you feedback. Affirm the relationship, especially if the criticism has been harsh or difficult to hear. Remember that when people give you feedback, they are doing so with your best interests at heart. If you find yourself feeling defensive or holding on to negative feelings even after the feedback session, make sure to find a way to clear the air as soon as possible. This demonstrates not only that you are committed to your own growth, but that you value the relationship with the person who gave you the feedback.

 

Next week: How to give feedback (or is there really a thing as positive, or constructive, criticism?)

The Core of Leadership is Self-Awareness – Being who you are.

 

The work of author and business coach Marshall Goldsmith, in particular his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (2007) has been a significant influence in me becoming self-aware.

In the spring of 2009 I attended Goldsmith’s workshop in Boston after reading his book and being intrigued by the concepts he espoused, specifically the “Twenty habits that hold you back from the top” (pp 40 – 41). These twenty habits are: winning too much; adding too much value; passing judgment, making destructive comments; starting with “No,” “But,” or However,”; telling the world how smart you are; speaking when angry; negativity, or “let me explain why that won’t work”; withholding information; failing to give proper recognition; claiming credit that we don’t deserve; making excuses; clinging to the past; playing favorites; refusing to express regret; not listening; failing to express gratitude; punishing the messenger; passing the buck and finally; an excessive need to be “me”. Goldsmith’s approach and imagery of leadership struck me as a model I wished to learn more about.

The  exhaustive list above lays out a full menu of interpersonal behaviours — that when acknowledged, can be modified without much effort, or as Goldsmith puts it “… the faint imagination to stop doing what you’ve done in the past – in effect, to do nothing at all” (p 39).

Why is this such a powerful leadership book? C.K. Prahalad, author, and Paul and Ruth McCracken of the University of Michigan, stated in one of the introductions to this book, “ …Helping high achievers recognize their sharp edges, become more self-aware, and increase their personal effectiveness is at the heart of leadership development”. It is learning about whom you are, and how, being aware of your behaviours and its impact on those around you, is the first step in becoming a leader. As Short (1998) stated, we have an image of ourselves, of others and about how the “way something is supposed to look; when reality doesn’t match out image, we simply do not see it” (p.13). One of the first steps in effective leadership is looking at things from the inside out.

Scharmer (2009) suggests that the cause of our collective failure is that we are blind to a deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change. Goldsmith suggested that being self-aware, by being open to others feedback can illuminate these areas that are “blind” to us. Most of us can’t afford a professional mentor to follow us around and give feedback, however, what we can do is solicit the help of a peer or colleague to mutually support one another by asking one question, and only one: “How can I do better?” (p 122).  Variations such as “What can I do to be a better parent?” or “What can I do to be a better leader of this team?” also work (p 122).

Goldsmith presents the Johari Window as an example of how such feedback can be so effective, that others can observe things about us which we cannot see ourselves – our  “blind spots”. When we can see them, they become a “Damascus” moment that can “create dramatic change” (p 123).

“What Goldsmith does is present a simple but powerful approach for helping leaders excel” (Joe Katzenbach as cited in Goldsmith, 2007). This quote embodies what I also discovered, that Goldsmith’s philosophy draws one to the inevitable conclusion that at the core of leadership is self-awareness – being who you are.