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Four networking mistakes that leaders should avoid.

One-way verbal traffic and getting right in someone’s personal space are just two of the behavioural traits that are least likely to impress networking expert Fiona Duncan-Steer.

May 20, 2022

by Fiona Duncan, 2022

For many professionals, networking is so ubiquitous that it seems strange for people like me to be out here calling for more of it – after all, isn’t networking just the way we get things done these days?

But despite the sheer scale of networking and all the advantages it brings, not everyone has caught the bug – and lots of leaders are still struggling to get their heads around it. I have two theories about this:

  1. Some leaders are quite old-school in their approach to marketing and haven’t developed themselves to learn about all the great tools at their disposal – whether that’s social media or SEO. As such, those leaders also tend to be rather reluctant to spend money on boosting their networking power – for example, by paying for membership of professional networks.

  2. Other leaders are dealing with personal anxieties that affect their confidence. Either they’re grappling with pre-conceived ideas of what will happen when they get in the room, or they’ve had a bad experience of networking that’s put them off. Funnily enough, the latter happened to me once, and I took a long break from the scene – until, that is, I launched my own network!

No matter what’s holding you back, though, the fact remains that if you don’t network, your competitors almost certainly will. So, before you head into the fray, here’s a quick rundown of networking gaffes you definitely shouldn’t make – which will hopefully give you a clearer idea of what you should do!

Failure to listen

Conversation is an art. Ideally, it should play out like an agile game of tennis, where questions and answers – and the ideas within them – are batted elegantly back and forth, each time with a new spin.

But I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t have that facility with conversation, and tend to overtake networking chats with what’s going on in their own world.

At its most harmless, this is the result of nerves and adrenalin: people can get quite understandably overexcited with talking about their own business – and if they get on a roll, their natural reflex is to think, “Yes – here I am, networking!”

However, during networking events, time is precious – so in the few minutes you have with someone while you’re working a room, you have to be interested in them. A lack of questions from one side of the fence is a real bugbear of mine. Networking is about making personal connections and leaving a great impression – so unless you show genuine curiosity, you’ll just come across as overbearing or alienating.

That means asking the right questions according to the ebb and flow of the conversation – and in order to do that, you have to listen.

The limp handshake

As we readjust to in-person events, the trusty handshake will be coming back from a lengthy spell on the bench. And whether you like it or not, people will judge you on your handshake.

Obviously, it’s customary to greet people in a host of different ways across different cultures. But in the UK, the handshake is imbued with significant personal-brand value. For that reason, I actually include a section on handshakes in my networking training.

When we meet someone for the first time, we experience a quick succession of

connections: eye contact, then a smile – usually in parallel with a verbal introduction – and then, to seal the deal, the handshake.

So, the handshake plays a powerful role in solidifying the reputation that may have preceded you from either online materials about your career, or a blurb in a brochure of featured speakers at an industry event.

Again, I’ll preface this with “whether you like it or not” – but society dictates that if you have a weak handshake in business, it says a lot about your confidence, assertiveness, stability and authority. So, while there’s no need to go in with a crusher, make sure your handshake sticks a firm landing.

Space invasion

Another huge bugbear of mine is when one individual in a networking pair shuffles closer and closer to the other person as the conversation goes on, getting right into their personal space. I call these people Space Invaders.

There are lots of reasons why this is poor form. For a start, it’s domineering and rude – and just imagine what effect it would have in combination with the sort of one-way verbal traffic I criticised in Point 1.

But at this point in time, when event holders may maintain their own social distancing measures and people will still be psychologically wary of getting too close to individuals they don’t know very well, it’s a major no-no.

A lot of Space Invaders may not even realise that they’re doing it – for them, it’s happening on a purely subconscious level. But that makes it all the more vital to keep track of what you’re doing. It will signal courtesy and self-awareness to the person you’re speaking to.

Getting distracted

Many of us are still carrying out plenty of meetings – including networking chats – online. Over the past two years, we’ve all seen our fair share of amusing social media clips of children or pets barging in on people who are supposed to be acting super-professionally on Zoom or Teams.

When it comes to online chats, I’m very anti-distractions – I even go so far as to hang a notice on my front door asking doorknockers and delivery staff not to approach the house when I have a meeting in progress. Managing the other doors insidethe home is also a big priority!

Distractions can also stem from your technology. For example, the superimposed background you’ve selected from your chosen meeting platform may be nibbling away at the edges of your face – which may make it somewhat difficult for the other person to take what you’re saying seriously.

A five-minute tech test about half an hour before your chat should iron out any creases, and ensure that you and the person you are networking with can focus completely on the conversation at hand.

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