It's not what you know, but who you know, as the saying goes. While I lean towards a healthy combination of the two - determination and a healthy love of hard work being crucial for growing both your personal and business 'brands' - there's no doubt that getting yourself out there is important.
This January, I had the privilege of attending Davos for the first time, part of the WPP contingent and also in my role as Vice Chair on the Future of Media Global Agenda Council. As a council, our brief was to gain traction and views on our core project (the value of digital readiness indexed by market to help close the global digital divide).
Beyond that, with my Maxus hat on, 'doing Davos' entailed a tightly packed schedule of drinks, dinners and ice breakers guaranteed to break even the most self assured networker out in a cold sweat. And that was before I read The Economist's Schumpeter piece advocating 'shamelessness' for schmoozing success!
While in no way meant as hard and fast rules - I am no expert but I try! - here are some networking guidelines I broadly try to follow:
1. Do your research
Before attending an event I always check out the delegate list, pinpointing who I'd like to meet and how/why this would be mutually beneficial. This means mapping out what to discuss and having a clear idea of your message; I call it 'bringing a gift', be it a relevant story, question or idea. Flattery is helpful. Genning up on what people have written or said recently to reference appropriately is a win-win. Recently, I had a personal dinner to attend with a heads up that I'd be sitting by the global CEO of a major bank. So, I did some reading up on his business and passion points beforehand so I could be 'on form', without seeming like a stalker, of course!
2. Find your inner extrovert
If you are naturally introverted, this will be trickier - but background research and awareness of current affairs builds a checklist of ready-prepared talking points. Walking into a room full of strangers can be nerve-wracking for even the seemingly confident among us. Take a deep breath and get out there. There's nothing wrong with 'butting into' conversations if done tactfully and politely. I find honesty the best policy here - so I explain that I know literally nobody there just yet (the "just yet" implying that I will soon!) And don't wait for an invitation - be charming, be human. Innocuous comments are an easy start, with the weather, the warm wine and the dearth of canapés all safe introductory trinkets.
Once in a group, I try to actively look out for others on their own and welcome them in. Kindness will be remembered and may even start a 'pay it forwards' trend to make it easier for us all. In fact, impeccable manners and politeness should be at the heart of any interaction - my inspiration being Professor Julia Hobsbawm, whose ability to make continuous introductions is truly an art form to observe.
3. Elevator pitches matter
Selling what you and your business do in a limited amount of time while not appearing forced or pushy is tough. I'm not ashamed to say (well, perhaps with a slight cringe) that I practised my elevator pitch in front of the mirror in the run up to Davos several times - from a personal and corporate messaging perspective. Rehearsal is crucial. Try and establish the standout fact that will make people remember you and your company in a week's time. Prepare, prepare, prepare - but also be ready to ad-lib should things take an unexpected tangent.
4. Listen attentively
The 'be interested' element is, I'd say, one of the hardest and most overlooked ingredients of great networking. There is a fine balance to strike between inputting usefully to the conversation, asking questions, and then listening intently. So many people listen artificially while waiting to say their bit, which is not helpful, authentic or interesting at all. And those doing so with one eye over your shoulder, looking out for someone more interesting just create a dreadful experience for all. If you find yourself in this situation, try and take it as a reflection on that person's insecurity (or rudeness) rather than your own conversation skills. Equally, it's important to use one's instincts and judge when to step away if somebody isn't being responsive to you. Elegant exiting skills are a networking must.
5. What happens next?
All being well, a stimulating, well-balanced conversation comes to its own natural and mutual conclusion. Both parties will probably have a sense of whether they are keen for any follow up. An exchange of business cards should usually suffice - I always annotate mine post-event with a 'memorable fact' to cement the contact firmly within my mental filofax. Whenever I initiate a further call or meeting, I try to be really specific about content and timing given how busy we all are.
Let's also remember that women are especially blessed with innate networking prowess. Broadly speaking, we have naturally attentive listening skills and love to talk. We should, however, resist gravitating towards one another, even when that feels easier in heavily male-dominated settings.
You don't have to love golf or football, but then it can be helpful to know what's going on and have a point of view. Otherwise, have an interesting curve ball to switch up the conversation to your advantage.
Much as with important meetings, preparation is key to the networking game. So, lippy on, shoulders back, deep breath and smile. Be yourself - be interested and interesting - and I find the rest will usually follow.