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5 ways to build a great network, according to business leaders

Smart professionals use a range of networking techniques. Here's how you can, too.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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There's a good reason why so many digital business leaders talk about engagement and relationships -- the modern workplace is a social space where your ability to rise into high-level positions is as much about who you know as what you know.

Successful business leaders are great collaborators with a strong brand. They build a network of contacts and are recognized in their industry as pioneers. So, how can you start connecting with others? Five business leaders give us their top tips for successful networking.

1. Focus on your work

Hakan Yaren, CIO at APL Logistics, says great networking starts close to home and smart professionals understand the importance of being great at what they do.

"Sometimes you see folks that are coming up and want visibility, but without wanting to do the work," he says.

"So, I always say, 'The work matters. Be an expert in the field that you're in.'"

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Yaren says certain skills will help you to network effectively, including the right attitude, aptitude, and the ability to read the room.

He encourages professionals who want to build a brand to take on multiple activities.

"Raise your hand. Everybody's path is different. I didn't start in IT. I'm an engineer by training. I worked as an engineer for the first few years of my working life," Yaren says.

"It's up to you to make the most of these opportunities. Add value -- incrementally improve each role and learn from the process."

2. Share your wisdom with peers

Dan Eddie, director of customer service at UK health solutions provider Simplyhealth, encourages professionals to share information transparently with their peers.

"I posted on LinkedIn recently explaining how 84% of our complaints are resolved within three days. And it's attracted a barrage of interest from the customer experience community," he says.

"'How have you done it? What are you doing?' And I'm happy to share some of that information. It isn't rocket science, but I know how difficult it is to achieve."

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Eddie explains how he uses a range of techniques, including Salesforce Einstein for Service and knowledge GPT-enabled responses, to create his firm's high complaint-resolution rate, which is way above average industry rates of 46%.

"I've worked in the customer service operations industry for many years. And I've failed and I've been successful," he says.

"But that learning enables me to know how to achieve the results we're delivering now at Simplyhealth. And I'm happy to share what we're doing and how we're empowering the frontline."

Eddie encourages other professionals who want to build their brands to share their ideas.

"I like to do interviews with the press, I like to get on the stage, and I like to get into forums and find out what other people are doing," he says.

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"There's always a nugget to take away and bring back to your own nest. So, successful networking is about building relationships and having conversations."

3. Concentrate on your interests

Nic Granger, director of corporate and CFO at North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), says the best way to connect with other people is to be selective.

"Do networking within areas you're interested in," she says. "If you try to go to every event, then you just burn out and end up talking yourself out."

Before joining NSTA in late 2016, Granger spent nine years working for the Falkland Islands Government, where she was strategic executive director and deputy chief executive, which included responsibility for finance and other corporate functions.

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She retains an interest in the Islands today. "I'm a non-exec trustee of a conservation charity," she tells ZDNET, reflecting on her role with Falklands Conservation. "It's a UK charity but operates predominantly in the Falklands."

Falklands Conservation is a non-governmental organization that works to conserve wildlife for future generations.

Granger says fulfilling a non-exec role for the charity bolsters her skills and she advises other professionals to look for similar opportunities.

"Networking for me is about finding the topics that you're interested in, and then meeting other people that are interested in those topics."

4. Stop worrying about looking stupid

Caroline Carruthers, CEO at consultant Carruthers and Jackson, has simple advice for people looking to build their brand: "Stop worrying about looking stupid."

It's tough for people to get to know you if you don't have a strong presence in the real world and online.

"So, talk to people, stand on a stage, attend events, and reach out to people on LinkedIn," she tells ZDNET.

"I'm shocked at the small number of times that I've been knocked back when I've approached people during my career. Most people are interested in having a conversation."

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Carruthers says it's also important to recognize that many people you network with want to build their brands.

So, think of networking as a mutually beneficial exercise.

"The other thing to consider is that if you're interested in collaborating with somebody, ask them about themselves," she says. "Most people love talking about themselves."

5. Don't forget about internal networking

Craig Donald, CIO at The Football Association, recognizes that an external presence is important, but he says effective brand-builders also think carefully about how they're perceived internally.

"Networking successfully with the business is about making time to have ad hoc conversations," he says.

Donald tells ZDNET that it's difficult to converse with senior colleagues if you've not already focused on building relationships.

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"If you don't spend time talking with people, it becomes much more difficult when it's time to collaborate because you don't have those strong relationships," he says.

"So, I think networking is about ensuring you continually refresh the relationship -- making sure you're finding time for a coffee or finding time for a quick chat on Teams or Slack just to say, 'How are things and what's going on?'"

People who network effectively find it's much easier to collaborate -- and people remember your strengths, too.

"Everything feels less forced because you've got a relationship already," says Donald. "So, that for me, is what feels right within this organization -- having those contacts and not just using them when you need them."

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