According to a poll I ran on LinkedIn recently, a massive 47% of procurement and supply chain professionals in the construction sector consider themselves to be poor at networking. Most of us acknowledge that networking is time well spent but, as happens with so many things that have a medium- to long-term payback, we then bump it down the list in favour of more immediate demands in our busy day-to-day roles.
So what are the benefits of networking? Is it important to your career development? And how can you efficiently and effectively build, manage and leverage your contacts?
Why networking matters for career development
While prioritising activities with more immediate payback is always tempting, effective networking will have a huge impact on your career progression over time. Two core benefits are:
Operational effectiveness - Exposure to alternative techniques and perspectives makes all of us better and more efficient at our jobs.
A strong network can both help you stay abreast of the ever-evolving legislation and regulation that is ubiquitous in construction procurement and can be leveraged to reduce the legwork involved in identifying and sourcing products and suppliers.
Furthermore, while engaging with your network, not only will you often pick up on hidden risks and opportunities relating to different suppliers – for example timeliness, cost and quality but you will also be more likely to sense trends such as imbalances in material availability/demand earlier than you otherwise might.
Career development - While being good at your job makes career progress far easier, who you know is also a significant factor.
- Tactical advice on different challenges – from career decisions to issues with managing colleagues, your network will likely have someone who has experienced a similar scenario and is willing to share their insights. The challenge is knowing who to approach and that tends to be a question of developing good personal relations. Many potential issues may not be specific to procurement and supply chain in the construction sector and so there is no harm in building as broad a network as possible.
- Sanity and confidence – procurement can be a lonely place. Many teams are small, meaning there is little opportunity to validate how good a job you are doing given the circumstances. Building relationships with colleagues in similar situations with whom you can share experiences can give tremendous confidence.
- Career opportunities (internal and external) – the better known you are, the more likely you are to be considered for relevant roles whether that is inside or outside your current organisation.
- Different perspectives accelerate learning – even in larger recruitment teams, a group-think mentality can easily emerge. The broader your network, even beyond construction, procurement and supply chain, the more rounded and considered your insights are likely to be.
Does networking impact your career?
I know that’s a short answer, but it’s black and white. As outlined above, it makes you better at your job and leads to more career opportunities.
So how should you network…
How to network effectively
The good news is that although it requires thought, networking isn’t rocket science. The ‘bad’ news is that it takes both time and discipline.
Start by creating a networking strategy and then create a plan to deliver it.
In terms of the strategy think about what you want from your network… mentoring, better information, access to new opportunities, advice on managing situations etc. Which individuals or types of people do you need in your network to achieve that? How are you going to build and maintain relationships with them? And then crucially, how much time can you realistically allocate to networking?
Having thought those ideas through, I suggest developing two parallel networking plans, one to maintain your existing network and the second to add new contacts to it.
Network maintenance – relationships that you nurture most over time will be the ones that you are able to call on most easily and productively. As such it makes sense to segment your contacts.
- Grade your network into As, Bs and Cs. ‘A’s are relationships that you want to actively nurture, ‘B’s are ones that aren’t high priority but that you want to maintain, and ‘C’s are passive ones you want to maintain but with minimum effort.
- Set yourself targets for each grade. For example, a target for ‘A’s might be at least one conversation per quarter; for ‘B’s one conversation every year plus an interim, personal email; and ‘C’s an email (largely generic but top and tailed) once a year or a generic update every six months. Be realistic about how long it will take to nurture the A & B relationships in particular.
- Use broadcast and light touch techniques – LinkedIn and other social media platforms can provide a very effective, light touch approach to maintaining contact. When your post updates do so in a way that encourages your network to engage (for example, ask a question in the post). Make time to scan LinkedIn for content from your network that you can comment on – career moves, articles they’ve written or shared etc. Some of the best networkers also produce a newsletter or article on a regular basis that they share with their contacts – for example, a well written thought leadership or “how to” piece may take time to produce but it can then be shared with a large audience and so the time investment becomes efficient.
- Schedule networking time. In my experience, professionals who don’t schedule regular slots for maintaining their networks don’t nurture them effectively. Your networking plan will take time to execute and that will only happen if you schedule it in a way that works for you. Strategies include: dedicating a day to networking every 2-4 weeks; scheduling 10-15 minutes a day in the diary; or having a dedicated networking evening once a week/month. The important thing is to make sure the time doesn’t get bumped.
- Be patient. The impact of maintaining your networking won’t be immediately evident but it is an investment for your future that will pay off.
Network building – the broader your network, the more likely it is to support your career aspirations and needs. While your day-to-day work will naturally grow your network, being proactive about growing it may help you add more interesting, insightful, useful and influential people. Attending conferences, awards, drinks evenings, training courses etc can all be great ways of meeting people outside your direct circle.
- Set objectives. While simply attending events etc will broaden your network, try to be more strategic by setting yourself the objective of meeting specific individuals, skill sets or experiences.
- Plan your networking carefully. Time and money are finite and so consider which networking opportunities will deliver the best results. If you are attending an event, try to secure the attendee list before going to help you identify who you most want to meet. Having done so, research them and potentially message them before the event to try to arrange to meet.
- Build your confidence. If you dread going to a room and being sociable with strangers you are not alone - many of us aren’t natural networkers. The good news is that networking is a skill you can learn and by feigning confidence, you will find that your confidence actually grows. Start by developing techniques that will enable you to encourage others to talk while you listen. One such technique is to memorise nine questions on subjects you’d be comfortable discussing before the event you’re attending. For example, three questions to do with the industry (e.g. “what do think is going to happen to prices of xxxxx over the next few years?” or “how are you preparing for xxxxx legislation?”, three to do with the news generally (e.g. “what do you think about [story]”; and three personal ones (e.g. “Have you any exciting holidays planned?”). Studies show that the more people talk about themselves and share their opinions, the more interesting they think you are.
Remember that the bigger and more active your network, the easier networking becomes. Not simply because you become used to it but also because the more events you will be invited to, the more people you will know at those events and the more your network will actively look to stay in touch with you (rather than you needing to contact them). The most successful individuals are great, strategic networkers and while it may look effortless from the outside, that is because they have worked hard to make it automatic.