How to build a great network from scratch
Top tips on making and keeping the right connections that will help your project fly
By Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton
Networks are built on the basis of mutual benefit, connection and trust. They are not just a collection of people that you know in an organisation.
In order to build an effective network, you need to show up in your own personal authentic leadership style, because people can sense authenticity and are naturally wary of anything that feels contrived.
We all know that relationships are essential in delivering projects, but what do you do when you are starting a new project role in an unfamiliar organisation where you know no-one? Where do you start, particularly when Covid-19 restricts who you can meet face to face? Having a supportive Tribe* of people around you makes you a more effective project manager and your projects more successful.
Networks take time to build and there are additional considerations during this period of on-line meetings with limited opportunity to bump into people to build your connections informally, as might happen when you are in the office or on site. Here are five things though that you can do to help fast-track the process:
1. Remember, the first few weeks in a new organisation are a gift.
Nobody expects you to start being productive immediately, you are allowed to ask any question you want. You bring value as you are seeing the organisation and the project with a fresh pair of eyes. More likely than not, the questions you are asking are insightful and will certainly not be considered stupid. Use this time wisely to learn about the organisation, to find out how it works, and who the key players are, that can both help and shape your project.
2. Start to develop some useful relationships.
Be warm and friendly to everyone you interact with. When working at a distance, the opportunity to greet others with a smile and a cheery “Good morning” as you would have done on arrival at the office is a little trickier. Think about how to help others connect with you quickly. How would you introduce yourself? What is important for others to know about you? Who are you at work, what are your skills, what do you love doing, what is important to you outside work?
3. Ask for help to navigate your way around the organisation.
Check out the information provided on the intranet, find the organisation charts, ask for a mentor, and when you find people keen to help, find out who supports them to help widen your connections further. Don’t forget to engage with the PA’s, IT Helpdesk and other people critical to the project you are working on. The important thing here is to make them feel valued; they are often the people who hold the keys to getting things done in the organisation. Checking that they are the right person to ask and that now is a convenient time are easy ways to make sure you get your relationship off on the right foot. If they are not the right person to help you, ask them if they know who can and treat this as an opportunity to make another useful contact.
4. Listen carefully to the people you connect with.
In those early days, every conversation contains a wealth of useful information and every interaction is an opportunity to learn something. It is very easy to feel the need to demonstrate your experience as soon as you join an organisation, but the real value you can add is to make sure you understand the organisation before you move to action. That way, you check which bits of your experience are going to apply and work well in this new environment.
5. Use the resources that are available to you.
Read all the project documentation you can get hold of and pay attention to the names of key players on things like the risk and action logs. Arm yourself with as much information as you can find, so that you can ask questions and get clarification rather than giving the impression you expect to be spoon-fed information.
How to work your network
Networks are built on the basis of mutual benefit, connection and trust. They are not just a collection of people that you know in an organisation. Your network is a group of people that will always take your calls, answer your e-mails, have time to listen to you and be willing and able to give their time to help you when you ask. In the early stage of building your network, ensure interactions others have with you are pleasant. Demonstrate that you are sensitive to the fact other people are busy, and that you are grateful for their precious time.
Given this definition of a network, two things are important:
Keep focused on who you need in your network right now. If you spread your net too widely, you will just end up exhausting yourself. The most effective way to build a network is to piggy-back on someone else’s. Once you have the first person in your network you start to have access to their network, which means your network can grow more quickly.
There is a great video on You-Tube called ‘Leadership lessons from dancing guy’, which shows the impact of the multiplier effect once you have established that you are worth following.
Make yourself useful
Find ways to be helpful to people. This is not about doing random things or trying to create opportunities for interaction; instead, it is about listening carefully so that you can spot requests for help or opportunities where you could help solve an issue.
If all this sounds a bit calculated ..... it is!
Building your tribe
To be effective in any organisation, you need a Tribe* of people who are willing to help when you ask. Therefore, one of the skills that is critical to your success as a project professional is the ability to build relationships with both your immediate project team and within the wider organisation.
There is no single recipe for building a great network, but the simple mantra of ‘Be yourself, be consistent, and be kind’ is an excellent place to start. Then it is just a case of learning what tools and techniques work best for you.
One final thought – you don’t have to like all the people in your network but you do have to respect them.
In the meantime, here are some practical tips for making yourself helpful and accessible when you can’t meet face to face: 10 ways to be helpful and accessible in a virtual world;
- Make sure you have a good photo of you on your e-mail account and whatever meeting platform your organisation uses.
- Turn your camera on in meetings. If this is not possible in large meetings because of bandwidth issues, at least do it in smaller meetings. If you do it other people will follow.
- Always respond to requests for help quickly, even if the response is only to let the person know that you do not know the answer or that you cannot look at their request straight away.
- Make sure all your e-mail communications are clear. Only address e-mails to the people who need to do something, and cc other people who need to be aware. Be clear what action is required and who you are asking to do it, and if an e-mail is for information only say so at the top.
- Create your own personal project culture by being the change that you want to see. If the organisation has a good culture, people will want to be part of it and will start to seek you out.
- Engage with the whole person you are connecting with, not just their role. Be curious and interested in more than just the work you share.
- Recognise and celebrate people for the things that they bring to the mix. Look for people’s strengths and the value they bring. Spot the additional roles some people adopt on project teams, e.g., the toxic handler, the gossip, the social organiser.
- Remember the Johari matrix – not everyone sees things from the same perspective. Even if you can’t see the issue from the other person’s viewpoint, understanding that they have a different one will help you value their input. The more willing you are to be open and authentic, the more likely you are to encourage others to be the same with you. That will help you to build stronger connections.
- Do not be offended if someone you thought was in your network fails to deliver when you ask for help or does not support you in a meeting. There can be a whole host of reasons for their behaviour, most of which probably have nothing to do with you or your relationship.
- Be helpful, professional, authentic, and trustworthy. But, most of all, be yourself.
We hope you find these suggestions useful. Do let us know how you get on if you put any into practice and If you have any other tips or tried and tested alternatives on how to maximise your networks, especially in the very different world we are all currently living and working in, we would to hear about them!
*Tribe is one of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework. Your Tribe is much wider than your team. It is those people you need to build connections with around a shared goal, the Target (another of the 5T’s), in order to get the best from the people around you – whether they’re taking action, controlling risks or delivering a physical product.
As part of the ExtraordinaryPM journey, we show you how to lead and influence, inspiring your colleagues, peers and stakeholders to step up and become more effective and engaged. Because building better collaboration is the best way to create real change and measurable impact.
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