Like most professionals, you’ve probably been dragged at least once to a “networking group” where members trade—and often tally—the referrals they give to each other. (BNI is the best known, but there are plenty of local and national alternatives.) The logic seems sound—after all, everyone knows you need to build relationships to get ahead. Plus, the peer pressure of weekly meetings and public roll calls (“how many referrals are you bringing today?”) can do wonders for motivation. But let’s face it, sometimes joining a networking group can be more trouble than it’s worth.
Here are six questions to ponder to see if participation is worth your time.
1. Are you actually meeting people who are either potential customers or can refer customers to you? Talking with other professionals can be a wonderful way to build connections in your community, share best practices, and give back to junior executives. That’s different, however, from a “networking group” that’s meant to generate leads. If your goal is rainmaking, it’s a waste of time to chit-chat every week with people who aren’t really your customers (or can’t lead you to them).
2. Does it suck up too much of your time? One networking group I visited met every Thursday morning at 7:00 a.m. That’s great if you’re a confirmed early bird, but in today’s economy, you have to determine whether that precious time might be better spent tending to your own business (or on the treadmill at the gym). Plus, attending meetings and scrambling to find referrals for other people can take a lot of time. Figure out how much time you’re spending on the process, then do a careful cost-benefit analysis.
3. Are you giving more referrals than you’re getting? I don’t want to sound like Scrooge here, since I firmly believe in the value of thinking of others and sending them business. (“Giving to Get” is the very first step I outline in my white paper on How to Become a Referral Magnet (http://www.dorieclark.com/node/62). However, if week after week, you’re combing your professional network to scare up referrals for other group members and getting little in return, it may not be the best way to spend your energy.
4. Are you referring to people you really trust? The pressure to give referrals can be intense—one group I visited clanged bells and yelled out tallies of how much money club members had put in each other’s pockets. You can certainly get a feel for people when you’re interacting with them on a regular basis. Just because someone’s a nice guy, however, doesn’t mean his company’s software will work or that he’s skilled enough to manage your employees’ pension plan. Some groups make an effort to vet new members, requiring “sponsorship” from current participants—but have they seen them in action and hired them for projects, or do they just know them from “around town”?
5. Does participating hinder your ability to network more broadly? Of course your membership in the group doesn’t prohibit you from networking with other people or attending other events (if so, it’d be a cult, not a networking group). People, however, have limited time and energy—and, of course, you have a job (which, presumably, is why you’re there). If you’re so tired you can’t bring yourself to drop by other events, or so weary from beating the “referral bushes” you can’t fathom sending business to anyone outside your group, ask yourself this: is your group so powerful and effective that you can put 100% of your networking eggs into that basket? If yes, great. But if that thought is worrisome, consider whether the commitment is worth it.
6. Does it stress you out? Networking groups come in all flavors. Some are hard-charging and demanding (“You haven’t sent any referrals to Joe yet; why not?”). Others meet less frequently, or emphasize different values. It’s up to you to determine how to best meet your business and professional needs. Some people aren’t interested in being part of a group at all, preferring one-on-one interactions or setting up frequent lunch meetings or dinner parties, as Keith Ferrazzi describes in Never Eat Alone. However, one thing is clear—if you want to succeed in networking, and have the willpower to keep it up, it shouldn’t stress you out. Your job probably puts more than enough cortisol into your bloodstream, so try to come up with ways to make networking fun, not just another painful obligation.
The Bottom Line
Networking groups—when they fit your personal style and business needs—can boost your professional development and enhance your ability as a connector and rainmaker. However, as a busy executive, you must determine how to spend your time most effectively. If referrals are rolling in and your group meetings provide an opportunity to spend time with smart, interesting people you like—stay with it; but if you’re beginning to dread your group’s meetings and wonder what you’re getting out of it, you may be better off spending your precious time elsewhere.