Stop Networking. Build Relationships Instead.

By Jeff Ghannam

PR people are born networkers. They rarely shy away from any social dynamic and are quick to introduce themselves with a smile and handshake. But the momentum that comes with overcoming that formidable barrier and making a new contact often goes wasted because most people are content to simply build networks instead of meaningful relationships.

The end goal of networking is not about gathering business cards for prospect lists or connections on LinkedIn, it’s about developing mutually beneficial working relationships that can realistically advance both parties’ business objectives. (So ask yourself why you are networking in the first place). And you really can’t develop those kinds of relationships simply by attending drive-by gatherings (“speed networking,” anyone) where the focus is often on quantity vs. quality.

So how do you develop those meaningful working relationships? Here are a few tips:

Maybe you’re hanging out in the wrong places
Networking gatherings are a great way to meet new contacts (insert plug here for PRSA-NCC’s vast offerings of such meetings), but the best relationships develop in low stress situations because nothing is expected and everyone acts in a very relaxed and open manner. Do you want to get to know (not just meet) other PR people? Then volunteer to help with NCC activities where you can work alongside those people and get to know their work styles and backgrounds. If you can’t commit to volunteer time, attend certain networking meetings regularly where you will see the same people more than once so you can follow up on previous conversations. For example, one of the reasons we’ve developed “20+ LeaderPack” is to go beyond networking and instead nurture relationships. The group holds quarterly luncheons (next one is July 25) for PR pros with more than 20 years of experience so they can get to really know each other.

Stop talking about yourself
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met at networking events who don’t even bother to ask about my interests or background. They spend all of their time talking about themselves or their business and interests. So please stop pitching yourself and show some interest in your new contact. Not only is it polite, but it also shows self-confidence and that you’re interested in them and their needs and interests. If you show that you care about them, they will more likely care about you.

Give before taking
I’ve met people who within the first 30 seconds asked if I can help them in their job search. While I appreciate the urgency we all feel when we’re looking for work, I suggest (whatever your situation or goal) that you offer to give something first and chances are you will get something in return. Find out what your new contact needs and how can you help them. Don’t know how to ask? See the above point: Simply stop talking about yourself. Let them speak and they will show their hand. Give a little before you can get a little, right?

Take your time
Just like dating, people get turned off by someone who comes on too strong. First, if you meet someone at a networking event, take the time to really know them. Don’t get their business card and start looking over their shoulder for your next conquest. And, remember, quality relationships take months, if not years, to develop. I recently met someone at a networking event who seconds after giving me her elevator pitch asked, “So how can we work together?” Of course, I had no idea even if I wanted to work with her because I didn’t really know her just from her pitch and she certainly didn’t know me. I suggest a slower approach if there’s not an obvious need. After you make an initial contact, loop back with your new connection immediately and then every few weeks or months. Follow up with something specific and personalized to their interest when it crosses your desk. And, no, don’t automatically add them to your mass email lists without asking first. You are trying to develop relationships, not data points.

Take your connection offline
Once you meet someone, don’t limit your relationship to emails, texts, Twitter DMs and Facebook likes. The best way to build a distinct relationship these days is in person because many others are content simply with building their Twitter list of followers and Facebook likes. When possible, arrange to meet with new connections on their terms so it’s convenient for them. Come by their office for coffee or go for a coffee after the next networking meeting. And show up prepared; do your homework by reviewing your contact’s LinkedIn profile or their company’s website and they will know that you are interested in them. And if you can’t meet, pick up the telephone. (You know, it’s that thing where you hear a person’s voice on the other end.) People don’t use it that much anymore and it will make you stand out from the crowd.

Maintain your relationships
Once you’ve developed these mutually beneficial relationships, make sure to maintain them. Most people don’t’think about their relationship until a crisis like a job loss or a confounding professional challenge arises. Then they scramble to contact people who they have not spoken to in years. Such attempts are doomed to failure because they scream “the only reason I care about you now is because you can help me.” You should already have effective relationships in place that can help you in just about any situation.

Building professional relationships—just like with personal ones—is more about giving than getting. If you put the other person’s needs ahead of your own, I firmly believe that somehow your needs will be met. So be thinking of how your relationship can work for both of you and you will be fulfilled.

So what relationship building tips do you have to share? Comments are welcomed below.

Jeff Ghannam is president of Crystal Communications & Marketing, LLC, and is a past president of PRSA-NCC.

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What to Tell Employees When You Don’t Have All the Answers

Layoffs. Plant closings. Mergers. Executive departures.

These are uncertain times and, thanks to the economy, fear and paranoia, the rumor mill is stronger than ever.

When a company is gearing up for a major change during these uncertain times, the worst approach leadership can take is to hold off on communicating to employees until all decisions have been made, to sit back and wait until they have all the answers before addressing rumors and speculation.

So what do you say when you don’t have all the answers, when there are still unknowns? How do you announce a change when there are still many variables to be decided or when the end game is not entirely clear?

First, don’t discount the role of the manager or supervisor in this scenario. Employees will often go to their manager for “the real story” and if the management team has not been briefed in advance, they won’t be able to reinforce the key messages. Make sure that your managers understand the issues, can answer question about the facts at hand, and are comfortable reinforcing the unknown elements of the change.

Next, leadership should introduce the change with an acknowledgement that employees will have concerns and that there will be opportunities to voice those concerns. They should stress that this initial announcement is intended to provide context and outline the elements of the change that are known at this time, as well as the unknown. In addition, they should articulate a timeline for the change and specify which programs, divisions or teams may be impacted.

The first communication should set the stage for future updates and reinforce a commitment to communicate frequently as more information becomes available. It should also include instructions for voicing concerns or raising questions – to the manager, the executive, etc. And it should close with a sincere acknowledgement of how difficult change is in any organization and that the organization appreciates the employees support and dedication.

You owe it to your employees to be as honest and direct as possible about the changes afoot. This open communication won’t eliminate the rumor mill, but it will keep it in check.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Handling Tough Questions From Employees

During a town hall meeting a few years ago, I witnessed, first-hand, the worst possible response to a tough employee question.

The employees at this location, about 800 of them, were primarily hourly workers at the local call center. Up to this point, most of the questions from the floor centered on the overall industry, competition and new product releases. Pretty standard fare for this type of session, and the executives on the panel handled themselves with their characteristic poise and candor.

That all changed when a women, about five months pregnant, stood to ask her question.

She told the panel that she rode the bus to work and that the only affordable option for daycare was near her home, about an hour’s ride and two transfers away from the job site. She mentioned that many of her co-workers were also having difficulty juggling child care with shift hours. And she asked, “Will we ever get a daycare center onsite?”

The executive’s answer: “No.”

No expression of empathy. No acknowledgement of her struggles. Just “no.”

The audience was, to say the least, not pleased with the way that question was answered. In fact, the mood of the room deteriorated rapidly, and we’re lucky we made it out in one piece.

So what would have been a better response?

Well, for starters, it would have been good to show some genuine appreciation for the employee and her coworkers who dealt with work-life balance issues on a daily basis, yet still managed to put up impressive customer satisfaction scores.

And maybe the executive could have talked about fact that daycare was far outside the company’s core offerings, and that anything as precious as a child should be cared for by highly-skilled professionals.

At the very least, the executive could have thanked the employee for her question, and requested that he be allowed time to give such an important decision the thought it deserved. Later, after engaging local management in a fact-finding and discussion, he could follow up with that location to explain the company’s decision not to offer onsite daycare.

But he didn’t.

Moral of the story – before answering a tough question from employee, take a minute to think about what motivated the question. In many instances, the employee isn’t looking for an immediate solution – just an acknowledgement that his/her concerns are valid and that the company cares.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Bridging the Credibility Gap with Employee Communications

Susan_Rink-portrait-forwebA few years ago, a friend of mine was hired to conduct employee focus groups to gauge reactions to a new, and rather expensive, employee awareness campaign.  When she asked for comments about the company’s communications vehicles, one participant pointed to the Exit sign over the door and said, “That’s the only sign in this place that I trust.  The rest are all bulls___.”

Now, that’s a credibility gap!

Many companies suffer from a disconnect between what they say and what they do.  One classic example is the company that trumpets, “Our people are our greatest asset!” while they establish employee policies that restrict creativity and entrepreneurial thinking.  Or their executives talk about “work-life balance,” but employees feel pressured to check email and call in for staff meetings while on vacation.  No surprise that these companies suffer from higher than average turnover and low productivity.

Companies that truly value their employees demonstrate their high regard by treating their employees like adults, like valued business partners.

These organizations foster an environment of open discussion and respectful conflict, encouraging employees to take ownership of issues and voice their suggestions for improvements.  And when it comes time to be recognized, the employees’ contributions to the company’s success are rewarded.

So how can employee communicators bridge the credibility gap?  Well, if your company is in the midst of a crisis of confidence, it won’t be easy.  But it can be done.

First, you must establish a culture of open dialogue, one where employees are comfortable voicing dissenting opinions without fear of reprisal.  That can be accomplished by publishing contrarian points of view in your newsletter and on your intranet.  Managers can reinforce this new culture by inviting employees to voice their objections, and listen without becoming defensive.

Next, you must ensure that your company recognition programs, both formal and informal, reward behaviors that reflect your desired culture. Don’t restrict recognition to tenure.  If the one of the company values is innovation, then employees who think differently and challenge traditional processes should be recognized.

Finally, the best way to bridge the credibility gap is with timely, transparent employee communications.  Executives, managers –and the internal communications team — must commit to addressing real business issues and providing honest progress updates that are free of spin and “corporate speak.”

Otherwise, once the economy turns your employees will be looking for that Exit sign.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.