To Network: to walk into a room full of strangers, knowing the whole point is to make friends with new people” …is possibly the most unnatural business activity required of professionals.
Wendy Hart, Corporate Finance Partner at HMT LLP shares her personal view with Business & Innovation Magazine
“Even after 30+ years of it, I still find myself hovering pathetically by the coat racks, frantically looking for someone I already know and can legitimately fling myself at. I don’t mind talking to new people, in fact I love it, but I hate the sense of obligation associated with a networking event. I can’t just enjoy the conversation, I have to collect the person as a scalp on my networking belt (assuming they might be useful to me of course!) which turns a party into a chore and makes me feel like some kind of parasite.
And yet, despite being an appalling networker, I have an amazing network and can reach out to many, many people of all sorts and with the most incredible range of skills and connections to help me get my job done. My people collection (for that is what a network is) could probably solve global warming if the right permutation of it was applied to the task.
That network is (obviously) partly a function of longevity (!) but given that it wasn’t built in large rooms full of people holding glasses of prosecco, I thought it would perhaps be useful to reflect on where it did come from.
In the normal course of my work, I meet lots of people. Some of them become clients. Those that don’t I try and maintain a relationship with (“let me know if things change”, “if I can do anything to help just shout”. “don’t feel bad about choosing someone else – it’s fine”) some of my best deals have been referred by people who didn’t appoint me to do their own deal.
I meet lots of professionals, advisers on “the other side” of transactions as well as on my own. A deal is an intense melting pot for business relationships Emotions can be high, hours can be long and quality advice (on either side) shines through. If I think an individual is great, I will reach out to them and add them to my collection and then I will refer work to them; regardless of whether there is any likelihood of getting something back. My job is to get deals done and working with new people who are going to help me do that is a win-win (and it extends the network).
Often people ask me for help. They might want to pick my brain about something, they might want help with a transaction that isn’t economic for me to get involved with, they might ask me to help find work experience for a son or daughter, or they might ask, “do you know anyone who can advise on [fill in the blank]?” .I always try and help. I have become really good at helping in a way that doesn’t suck me into a big time commitment, but I find that the right introduction, a short email of things to think about, a list of funders they might approach is very much appreciated, and remembered. Sometimes people come back years later, this time with a deal I really do want to do or a valuable introduction of their own.
And sometimes the network builds in really unpredictable ways. That happened this week – it is what prompted me to think about the network enigma…
Years ago I took a cab from Marylebone to Finsbury Square. The young cab driver asked me what I did, and when I told him I was a Corporate Finance Partner he told me he had always wanted to get into Corporate Finance. We spent the journey chewing over his skill set and how he might go about breaking into CF work given that he wasn’t an accountant. I told him very honestly that I thought it would be difficult. When he dropped me off, he asked for my card and I (with some trepidation) handed it over. He contacted me once more a few weeks later and I gave him some thoughts on his CV.
I never heard from him again… Until this week, when I got a message from him on LinkedIn. He is now working as an adviser to companies raising start up and growth finance and he is working with a team that were looking to do something outside his range of experience and wanted some input.
In the beginning of his message, he told me that our conversation had meant a great deal to him and that he was grateful for my time all those years ago. I was genuinely moved by the message. I hadn’t really believed that he would make it into the job he so badly wanted and I am sure it wasn’t easy.
I wanted to help him again and so, though it was a deal in a specialist sector which I didn’t think I was right for, I reached out to an ex-colleague of mine who I knew would be able to help him. I don’t know how it will end up, but perhaps it will end up being great for both of them (and perhaps I might still benefit in some way too). Anyway those two network links are now a bit stronger than they were.
So, to sum these ramblings up, for me, personally, my network is a web of connections, some almost as strong as family, others tentative and untested. When I need someone for something, I go to my network and it helps me find what I need. When my network reaches out to me, I try and help and if I cannot help, I try and think of someone or something that will.
My network is important to me because without it I couldn’t do my job. But it is also important to me because it contains lots of people I really like and care about; clients, ex-clients, colleagues, ex-colleagues, friends, amazing people with super-powers I don’t share and knowledge I don’t have. It contains people I have done deals with, sat around a board table with, stayed up in completion meetings with, shared difficult moments with, learned from, developed ideas with and trusted.
It isn’t a fixed thing. It’s a bit like a vast cobweb floating around near the ceiling or a planetary system where the orbits of the planets shift and move over time. It does take work to maintain though. It means responding to messages quickly and politely, it means taking the time for that coffee or glass of wine, it means investing time to help, it means sharing contacts and connections with others, not keeping them all for yourself.
After 30 years of resisting the verb “to network”, I have concluded that a network is an organic thing. Nurture relationships, be open to new people, be generous with your time and your skills and your contacts, believe in the karma of connection and a network just happens; even if you do lurk by the coat racks”.
Wendy Hart, Corporate Finance Partner at HMT LLP