NETWORKING: Savvy About Schmoozing – How to Network Effectively

It’s not unusual these days for CEOs and senior executives to receive invitations to at least one networking event every day. These could be breakfast and lunch meetings with high-profile speakers or after-work cocktails, even round of golf. How do you choose which to attend and how to make the most out of the event when you get there? On the other hand, if yours is the company hosting the event, how do you get the most out of the spend? In both cases, key factor is deciding your objective and target audience before the event.
Gen-i hosts around 4500 guests at about 110 hospitality events each year. It is well known for its successful “money can’t buy” event experiences and has an average of 75 percent acceptance of invitation and 95 percent attendance at its events.
Customer events and hospitality programme manager Francesca O’Dwyer says the company is quite clear about what it wants to achieve and who it wants to achieve it with.
Hospitality events are focused on building relationships and providing an opportunity to talk in no-pressure
“It is really important people don’t feel like they’re just going to get business, business, business,” O’Dwyer says.
For example, Gen-i invited people to attend the races at Ellerslie where they put up marquee.
“People could spend time with us and be part of Gen-i, but there was not lot of pressure to talk and they didn’t have to spend the whole day with us,” O’Dwyer says.
She recognises that people are time poor and organisations need to be smart about where they spend their dollars to make the best impact. Measuring return on investment is difficult, she laments.
“We measure success on what people say about the experience they have had and we ask our client managers if they got any opportunities from it.”
Getting the invitation onto the desk of the right person and getting them to open it is one of the biggest challenges, as well as making sure the event is relevant and original. Sustainability has also become important with many Gen-i clients preferring to receive invitations via email.
Targeting the message to key audience is also important for CEO of Provoke Solutions, Mason Pratt. There are few things the 2007 Eagle Technology / NZIM Young Executive of the Year dislikes more than being invited to “poorly disguised sales opportunity”. Bad experiences in the past have made him become more selective about what he attends. He’s more interested in opportunities to build partnerships than indulge in old-style social networking.
Pratt likes the idea one of his business partners came up with – to compile an invitation list with carefully selected sample of customers or business contacts and invite no more than 12 people to the theatre once month. Each one is provided with the invitation list and background about each of the businesses represented.
“It is very open and honest approach to networking and I find that really powerful,” Pratt says.
Pead PR managing director Deborah Pead says access to key decision makers is easier in New Zealand compared to other places where you might have to pay someone who knows someone. Here you get people’s direct dial phone numbers on their business cards.
“Kiwis are pretty good about it [networking]. Sometimes they don’t even realise they are networking,” she says.
She has noticed that networking has become more “engineered”. Pead PR sometimes even has companies requesting invitations to certain events it has organised on behalf of its clients.
“If they match up with the target audience, we say they can come along,” Pead says.
Hay Group CEO Ian MacRae, who describes himself as an Aussie with Scottish accent, has also noticed that it is easier to network in New Zealand than places like the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia.
“A lot more networking is done in New Zealand than anywhere else. The business population is small, so networking is more highly valued,” he says.
Networking organisations here are easier to join, there are more of them and membership is expected.
“If you are not involved in some kind of network, you are missing out,” MacRae says.
“I think Kiwis are natural networkers. They enjoy it. It goes with the values and culture of Kiwis and is highly accepted way of doing business. It is expected that people will participate.”
MacRae highlights variety as the key in networking – attending different events rather than going to the same one all the time.
One way to get that variety is to combine meeting people in person with online networking.
For example, the website offers professional working women an opportunity to ask questions about business issues, and experts within the network can offer advice in the form of articles which are available for everyone to read. However, co-director Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes says there’s still demand for offline meetings – as long as there is good reason and they offer value.
Bell Gully sees so much value in networking it has invested in special programme for its junior lawyers to help them learn the skills and techniques involved. It’s called “VIP” (Very Important Peers) and is low-pressure way for those new to the business to mingle with other young executives in other industries.
Business development director Chris Fogarty explains that the junior lawyers have the freedom to organise events they feel will be attractive to their peers. The organising committee has the support of the firm’s events team. Ideas are discussed before they are implemented and debriefing is held afterwards to ensure the events have been effective. Some examples of events organised by the VIP committee include cocktail making, casino night and movie premiers.
The junior lawyers choose who they want on the invitation list. They might have met them through work or at other events. They could be people they know through flatmates or university friends. The target audience is other young professionals. And the emphasis is on learning how to network in relaxed environment. Skills like building up the confidence to walk into room full of people they don’t know, circulating, starting conversations and making strong connections with people don’t come naturally to everyone, Fogarty says.
“We are not expecting them to come back and say ‘we have got this job or that piece of work’. That is not what the programme is about. It is about building their skills, but there will be pay-off for the firm because lot of them are the decision makers for tomorrow and building up networks and connections now is beneficial,” he says.
Former VIP committee member, Bell Gully solicitor Renee Hunt found the programme an excellent way to connect with people she dealt with often via email but had never met.
“Next time I am emailing we have got that rapport and connection and working with them in the future is different experience. It takes the formality out of it and makes dealing with them more comfortable,” she says.
She has seen junior lawyers coming into the firm who feel quite intimidated by the formality of work.
“Having this programme, we can let our hair down bit and talk to people from different backgrounds and different professions.”
Director of management consulting for Integral Consulting, Daniel Vidal believes there must be real motivation before anyone will attend networking event and using the networking opportunity to give sales pitch is definitely turn-off.
“It’s nice to get information, but if the price to pay for that information is to go through whole barrage of marketing and sales, from my perspective, it’s not overly enjoyable.”
Vidal emphasises networking is all about building relationships, which takes time, so networking events need to be held regularly to be effective. He recommends repeating the invitation to the same people to build trust.
“When starting from scratch you cannot get

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