Last Updated Sep 28, 2010 1:10 PM EDT
By Ivan Misner for Entrepreneur
Think about the most successful people you know. What's one thing they have in common? Probably this: They've built a network of contacts that provides support, information and business referrals. They have mastered the art and science of networking, and business flows to them almost as a matter of course.
It took those successful networkers years of hard work to build their networks. But many people don't understand networking basics.
Misconceptions about networking are widespread, even among business professionals. Before you can commit yourself to the task of building a healthy network, you probably need to overcome at least one of these three major networking misconceptions.
1. "I can't network if I'm not an outgoing person."
Go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief -- you don't have to become "Mr. Public Speaker" to be a successful networker. Most people naturally develop a certain level of comfort in dealing with customers, vendors, and others in their day-to-day transactions.
There are many techniques that can make the process a whole lot easier -- especially for those who consider themselves a bit introverted. For example, volunteering to be an ambassador or visitor host for a local business networking event can be a great way to get involved without feeling out of place.
When you have guests at your house or office, what do you do? You engage them; make them feel comfortable; you offer them something to drink. What you don't do is stand by yourself sulking about how you hate meeting new people. By serving as a visitor host at your local chamber event, you effectively become the host of the party. Try it, you'll find it much easier to meet and talk to new people.
2. "Person-to-person referral business is old-fashioned."
Yes, networking has been around a long time. It used to be the way that most businesses operated. In a small community everybody knows everybody, people do business with the people they trust, and they recommend these businesses to their friends.
Today, most people do business on a larger scale, over a broader customer base and geographic area. The personal connections of the old-style community, and the trust that went with them, is mostly gone. That's why a system for generating referrals among a group of professionals who trust one another is so important, and it's why referral networking is not only the way of the past but the wave of the future. It's a cost-effective strategy with a long-term payoff. It's where business marketing is going, and it's where you need to go if you're going to stay in the game. As the great Wayne Gretzky's father said, "skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been."
3. "Networking is not a hard science. Its return on investment can't be measured."
I once suggested to the dean of a large university that the business curriculum should include courses in networking. His response, "My professors would never teach that material here. It's all soft science."
I shouldn't have been surprised. I've run into this attitude many times. We give people bachelor's degrees in business, but we teach them little to nothing about the one subject that virtually every entrepreneur says is critical -- networking and social capital. Why don't business schools teach this subject? I think it's because most are made up of professors who've never owned a business. Almost everything they know about running a business they learned from books and consulting.
Can you imagine a law course taught by someone who's not an attorney, or an accounting course taught by anyone with no direct accounting experience? Yet we put business professors in colleges with little or no firsthand experience in the field. It's no wonder that a subject so critically important to business people would be so completely missed by business schools.
The science of networking is finally being codified and structured. Business schools around the world need to wake up and start teaching this curriculum. Schools with vision, foresight, and the ability to act swiftly (the way business professors say businesses should act) will be positioning themselves as leaders in education by truly understanding and responding to the needs of today's businesses.
At the end of our conversation, I asked the dean, "How are courses on leadership any less a soft science than networking?" He didn't have an answer.
Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of a strong network, and are willing to put in the time it takes to develop fruitful connections. If any of these misconceptions are holding you back, it's time to correct it with the tips provided -- and watch your business grow.
Ivan Misner is founder and Chairman of BNI, a professional business networking organization headquartered in Upland, Calif. Dubbed the "father of modern networking" by CNN, Misner is a New York Times bestselling author.
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(Photo courtesy of Flickr/Mykl Roventine, CC 2.0)