Remote networking – how do you build your network with colleagues you hardly ever meet?

Sometimes, clients ask questions that aren’t easily answered without further exploration, though the time needed for further exploration isn’t easily available.  A contract or agreement doesn’t allow for it or perhaps doesn’t allow for it in a timely way.  Even so, the question is worth exploring.

Recently, I fielded a request for resources on remote networking.  You may know the kind of thing.  How do you build relationships with your colleagues when you are geographically diverse and hardly ever see each other?  How do you make sure the right people know who you are?  How do you network when the last thing you want to do with your time – maybe the thing that is least natural to you or enjoyable for you – is reaching out to make contact with people you don’t know?

When you need to expand your network and don’t know how

Who's in your network already?  How did you meet?  The answer to this question will help you to understand how you build networks.  (I met this man, Steve Mattus, when we were both students with Mark Silver and Heart of Business.)
Who’s in your network already? How did you meet? The answer to this question will help you to understand how you build networks. (I met this man, Steve Mattus, when we were both students with Mark Silver and Heart of Business.)

It may be that you’re reading this posting and wondering what the fuss is about.  You know so many people around the business that you never hesitate to reach out for help and support or maybe you’re the “go to” person for other people in the business.  If you’re happy with the way things are, this article is not for you.  On the other hand, if you wonder, from time to time, why your wide network of relationships doesn’t translate into more interesting opportunities in your work or even the odd promotion, you might want to keep reading.

It may be that you have good relationships with your immediate circle of colleagues.  You feel comfortable in your relationships and you trust your mutual respect.  At the same time, you know that you need to widen your circle of contacts but somehow, you don’t quite know how.  With your immediate colleagues, you don’t have to think about why or how to network.  Even if you’re based on different continents, you have a built-in reason to keep in contact with each other, because you’re working on the same projects or have some other shared agenda.  And the how falls out of the why – you have a schedule of meetings (using whatever technology suits), you send e-mails in between, you pick up the phone when you need to.

So why is this additional networking so difficult?

Questions to reflect on when you’re expanding your remote network

Over time, my love of pottery has brought me into contact with a network of people I never dreamt of meeting.
Over time, my love of pottery has brought me into contact with a network of people I never dreamt of meeting.

Working with a diverse range of clients, I’ve become aware that the word “networking”, like the word “selling”, can strike fear into many hearts.  The fear may not be the same for each person and still, it’s there.

At the first pass, people feel daunted by networking (and yes, by selling) because the term itself is so vague and woolly.  How can I learn how to do this thing when I don’t quite know what it is that I’m supposed to be doing?  The concept is clear but the word networking says nothing about what you need to do in practice to… well, network.

At the second pass, there may well be some particular barriers that you need to overcome.  These will vary from person to person and they reflect both the situation you find yourself in and your own personality and preferences.  Some of them may be cunningly disguised – beliefs disguised as “facts”, for example.  So, part of the work is to uncover these barriers and to find ways around them.

The implication at the first and the second pass is clear:  you need to dig into this amorphous concept and make sense of it.  And you need to do this in a way that is tailored to you.  Only by getting under the skin of this rather vague idea can you work out your own way of networking.

What sort of things do you need to think about?  Here are a few ideas:

What do you want to get out of it?  If you think you need to do more networking, there’s probably a “because” lurking somewhere.  Before you take any further action, it’s worth identifying it.  Perhaps you want to open up opportunities for promotion.  Perhaps you want to deepen your understanding of the wider business.  Perhaps you want to have more fun at work – and fun for you is all about people.  Whatever your reason for networking, getting clear on your motivation supplies the motivation for you to take action and guides you in identifying actions that fulfill your purpose.

Many people, for example, come to understand that career progress isn’t just about merit.  People get the best opportunities who want them.  People get the best opportunities who put themselves forward.  People get the best opportunities who are in the right place at the right time.  Making it easier to make progress in your career may be one reason why you need to expand your network.  (And if it is, don’t wait to get noticed!)  There may also be others.

What assumptions are you making?  Sometimes, we make assumptions that get in the way of doing what we want and we don’t even know it.  These are our hidden and maybe limiting beliefs.  You want to get to know your boss’s boss but you assume that he or she has no time to interact with you.  It may be true – but do you really know it’s true?  You think that remote networking is more challenging than networking with people who work down the hall.  It may be true – but how do you know?  The nature of assumptions is that they are often out of sight, so it may help you to sit down with your coach, a friend or colleague and ask them to listen to you whilst you talk about remote networking and write down any assumptions they think you’re making.  This helps to bring your assumptions into view so that you can check out whether or not they really are true.

(And here’s a tip.  Even if you think they are true, notice how you feel if you imagine the opposite.  Your boss’s boss is keen to get to know you.  Remote networking is the easiest thing in the world.  If you feel differently, you’ll act differently.  This may be enough to set a different journey in motion.)

What’s getting in the way?  It may be your assumptions that are getting in the way.  It’s worth circling round them more than once to check for any limiting beliefs.  Equally, there may be other issues.  It’s worth asking yourself what you think they are and what it is about them that makes them an impediment.

Some things will be, at first glance, all about your circumstances – about what’s true out there in your world of work.  There are time differences between you and your colleagues, for example.  Or you want to be more visible to your boss’s boss but you’ve been asking for time for six months now and you’re still struggling to have the conversation you hope to have.

Some things will be about your inner world.  You want to speak with a colleague in another department, a colleague who is also on the other side of the world.  But you feel afraid to reach out to a complete stranger.  You have all sorts of stories in your mind about how they might respond.  (Obviously, they’ll say no.)  You have all sorts of stories in your mind about the meaning of their response.  (Clearly, saying no is a sign that they totally reject you.)  It’s easy to be glib about this but the truth is, whatever fears you have are very real to you.

Identifying what’s really getting in the way can help you to address any barriers, one step at a time.  Perhaps you need to know more about your boss’s boss in order to find a way to be more visible.  Your boss may be able to position you with his or her boss without any action on your part, for example.  Or your boss may know what you don’t, for example that the best way to get through to the boss is to phone between 7am and 9am and to ask for just five minutes’ conversation.

Equally, when you start to understand your own concerns you can bring care to them, too.  There are many ways to bring care to and transform a fear of rejection.

Networks build over time.  Colleagues become friends and introduce you to other colleagues.
Networks build over time. Colleagues become friends and introduce you to other colleagues.

Finding ways to network that work for you and for others.  Sometimes, small actions make a huge difference.  And it’s easier to take small actions when they’re actions you feel comfortable to take.  Part of your job is identifying each step, one step at a time.  Maybe you want to broaden your understanding of the business beyond your immediate department.  But your department sits in a building away from other colleagues.  If you’re naturally gregarious, you may love the idea of reaching out to colleagues to arrange a visit to their department in another building.  But if you prefer getting to know people slowly, you might prefer a step-by-step approach.  Perhaps you can start by asking someone for a specific piece of information and, when you get it, drop a line to say thank you.  Whatever step you take, you’ve taken a first step.  You’re now known to your colleagues, and they to you.

Equally, it can help to think about what needs your colleagues have that they might meet through their contact with you.  Your boss’s boss might appreciate regular updates on the project you’re directing but prefer it to be brief or, when you highlight problem issues, to have very clear requests about anything he or she can do to help.  The more you get to know different colleagues, the more you can find out about what they value.  Even when you first start to reach out to people, asking how you can support them is one way to find out what they most value and enjoy.

Celebrate small steps.  In some sales jobs, it can take years to make a sale, though when it comes it’s huge.  Imagine selling fleets of aircraft, for example, or gaining approval to build a new town.  If you wait until you’ve made the sale before you celebrate, you’ll never get there because the goal seems so far away.  People who are successful in making big sales are able to hold a vision even when they don’t know how they will achieve it, to take many actions that might move their agenda forward, to feel okay when an action they take doesn’t work and to sustain themselves along the way.  Even if your networking agenda is on a much smaller scale, you may find it helpful to learn from this approach.  Give yourself credit for taking action, for example, whether or not your action works.  This will help you to stay on track with your networking agenda.

It’s not about the technology – but technology is important.  Especially when you are building your network at a distance, it helps to use technology that serves your purpose.  Here’s an article, for example, from Dan Martell, in which he identifies a number of technologies that are available to support remote working:  Best Collaboration Tools For Working With Remote Teams.  Kevin Lee also offers 17 Tools For Remote Workers.  Wendy Soon offers Best Team-Building Activities For Remote Teams.

My nephew enjoyed photo-bombing this photo on a viewing.  In recent months, I've met many people who, like me, are interested in property.
My nephew enjoyed photo-bombing this photo on a viewing. In recent months, I’ve met many people who, like me, are interested in property.

Remote networking isn’t just about cause and effect.  Like selling, the results you get from your investment in remote networking are not always linear.  In my business, for example, I’ve noticed over time how business may come to me as a direct results of my actions.  At the same time, sometimes, it comes to me when I take action – but from somewhere quite different.  I send out a newsletter to my existing subscribers.  Independently, I field a call from someone I have never met before.  The same loose and unpredictable relationship can exist when you’re networking.

In my business, for example, there are  times when people contact me who have never written a word of response to things I have said on my blog or in public discussion groups to ask for more professional help.  They turn up, ready to go, having already decided that they’d like to work with me.  They do this because they have been reading what I have to say for a long time and relate to me via the medium of the written word (and yes, this is a medium I really enjoy.  This may be different for you).

In the corporate environment, in which many of my clients work, it may be your role in leading an important project that attracts the attention of key stakeholders or the fact that you helped someone who works for someone you’d like to know about your work.  It may even be that you are all the more noticeable precisely because your intention was, simply, to provide the help.  There is, here, a paradox.  It’s great to know why you want to build your network.  At the same time, it may be your authentic desire to contribute that catches the eye of key stakeholders.

It’s all about relationship

In the end, like so many other things, remote networking is all about relationship.  What relationship do we have, for example, with ourselves.  Do we know what we want?  Do we recognise our fears and limiting beliefs?  Are we willing to take action?  What actions work for us?  One implication of this is that our ability to network begins with our ability to relate with ourselves.  The more comfortable you are in your own skin, the more you will feel comfortable to reach out to others and the more comfortable they will feel in responding to you.

Remote networking is also about our relationships with others.  This may seem axiomatic –  the ultimate statement of the “bleedin’ obvious”.  At the same time, it’s often overlooked.  People respond to people.  Even on remote discussion groups people build relationships over time.  The links I have supplied in this article is just one example of how this works.  They were supplied to me by my good friend and colleague Hilary Cooke of Merlin Consultancy.  I know Hilary because we have both been members of Training Journal’s online forum for more years than I care to remember.  First we read each other’s postings.  Then we started to respond.  Then we started to correspond directly.  Then we arranged to meet.  I doubt if either one of us saw this as remote networking and still, it’s one example of how remote networking can work.

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