This year 325,000 undergraduate business students in the U.S. will graduate into the worst job market in decades; one of five will join millions of other professionals, both young and old, in the ranks of the unemployed. Despite their world-class education, most of them have not been taught the one critical skill that will be a crucial factor in their success – professional networking. Konstantin Danilov, the author of the forthcoming book “Networking: A Strategy Guide”, is hoping to change that. The book, which he describes as a practical how-to guide for building and developing a strong professional network, aims to develop a practical strategy that any student, professional, or entrepreneur can use to achieve his or her professional goals. His motivation for writing the book is what he feels is the lack of substantive material on this very relevant topic. He dismisses a large portion of the plethora of networking advice out there as “generic and ambiguous”.
The basis for the book comes from his personal experiences at different places on the networking spectrum. From a professional perspective, Konstantin holds a senior position with an investment management firm, which collectively manages nearly a hundred billion dollars, an achievement which he credits to many hours of networking. He also credits networking as a factor in getting accepted into one of the most prestigious business school in Europe, where later this year he will pursue a Master’s in Business Administration. On the opposite end of the networking spectrum, he has worked to help others develop their own networking skills. After several years of serving on various committees for a local professional association, he went on to become the co-founder of another, where for several years he served as vice president. His latest entrepreneurial project, which he and two other co-founders launched two years ago, is an organization dedicated to fostering networking and career development for students and alumni of his alma mater, a large public university where he also currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Alumni Association. Between the book, a potential career change post-business school, as well as several other entrepreneurial projects on tap, it is unlikely Konstantin’s networking efforts will taper off anytime soon.
MO: How important is a good networking strategy?
Konstantin: In my view, the process of networking is made up of two equally important parts – let’s call them the “surface” and “base” levels.
The base level is your foundation – this is your networking strategy. This is where you set your networking goals – you decide what it is you want to accomplish through networking. For some people this is a better job, or a new career. For others it’s finding a new business venture, growing their business or finding the right people to collaborate on a project. Your networking strategy is the structured process you develop to achieve that goal. You identify the people you know who can help you by either directly moving you closer to your goal, or by introducing you to other people. Then you figure out what the best way is to engage them, and ways you can help them, and over time you work on developing those key relationships.
The surface level is all about how you go about executing your strategy. It’s about polish, presentation and developing your story so that people can understand how they can help you, and why they should. It’s also about understanding the fine line between being persuasive and being pushy and aggressive.
The base level is about being strategic and analytical, but the surface level is all about soft skills. Both are equally important: if you have a great strategy but have no manners, you’re going to push people away. At the same time, you can be very personable and have great “people skills” but if you don’t have a strategy you’re going to waste a lot of time doing things that aren’t really moving you closer to your goal. Obviously, some people lean more one way versus the other, depending on their skill set. The good news is that if you identify your weaknesses, you can work on them to give yourself a better balance.
MO: Can you give our readers some tips on surviving a networking event?
Konstantin: There are so many articles out there on this, so I will avoid the obvious ones you already know. First off, make sure you’re not just going to the event because it seems like something you should do – make sure that there is a specific purpose for it, that it fits in with some goal that you’re trying to accomplish. Meeting new people is great, but if you’re just doing it at random to because you read an article that said you should go to more networking events, you can probably find better ways to use your time.
Next, if you have the option of bringing a friend, don’t do it. If you come alone, it will force you to go out and make friends with the people there, instead of taking the easy out by hanging out with your friend the entire night. The former is much more intimidating and difficult, but it will help you much more than the latter in the long run.
Lastly, don’t stress yourself out by focusing on being overly effective. The reason the average person is so weary of networking events is because they read articles that say how they should spend x minutes on every conversation, talk to x people per hour, never spend more than a few minutes with any one person, etc. etc. Then, they get to the event and try to have this elaborate systematic approach, it feels very unnatural and forced – they feel uncomfortable. Yes, if you’re in sales and all you care about is maximizing contact with prospective clients, you’re probably pretty comfortable with this approach. However, if you’re the average person just trying to meet a few people in your industry, just go to the event and talk to people who seem interesting. Just go with the flow, don’t over-think it. You’re better off making a handful of deep, meaningful connections than a bunch of quick, forced introductions.
MO: Some people are painfully shy. Do you have any networking and socializing tips for those who are truly uncomfortable in any social situation?
Konstantin: Being shy is not the end of the world – we have this notion of networking as being all about having the ability “work a room”, but again, to me that’s just a small component of the overall process. I’ve been to tons of networking events and I still feel uncomfortable if I have to go somewhere and mingle with people I don’t know – I think that’s a normal reaction. You can’t just go in there and within minutes of meeting someone and act like you’ve been best friends for years – it feels fake and forced.
It’s all about finding your competitive advantage – if you’re shy, you can make up for it by being strong in other parts of the networking process. Alluding to my previous comments, someone who’s painfully shy just needs to work on the “surface” level a bit more.
If you’re really, really shy, start slow. Just learning the basics of proper networking etiquette should make you feel a bit more comfortable. Having a strategy and goal and feeling like you have a purpose will too. Don’t jump right into a big networking event – identify someone whom you’d like to meet, and ask them to have coffee. If you have a mutual friend, set up a time for all three of you to meet – that should make it easier. Take some time to think about what it is that makes you so uncomfortable in social situations, isolate it, and then try to work through it. As you build up more confidence, start to expand out a bit more. I know that I said earlier that you should go alone to a networking event, but if that really makes you nervous, bring a friend or two. That way, you might not meet too many people, but at least you’re making progress.
MO: What is the difference between “random” and “strategic” luck? Is it possible for a person to influence their own luck?
Konstantin: Random luck is winning the state lottery. Or, to paraphrase from someone’s quote, achieving success in talent-based industries (singing, acting, sports, etc), in which case the lottery takes place before you’re born. Most of the time, you have little or no control over the outcome.
Strategic luck is what you need to achieve overwhelming success in a skill-based pursuit like business. You can’t just buy a lottery ticket to become the next Fortune 500 CEO – you have to work hard, get a great education, put in the hours, and then maybe you can get a shot at once in a lifetime opportunity. Any entrepreneur can attest that there are tons of great startups out there that had a great product or idea, but just didn’t get that one lucky break that would have catapulted them ahead.
If random luck is like a lottery ticket, strategic luck is more like a poker tournament. You need to be good just to have a shot at winning. But because of the nature of the game, you also need to get lucky a few times. There’s going to be a time when it’s late in the tournament and you have a 1% chance of drawing that one card on the “river”, and you get it. Being smart got you to that point, but then you just needed that one bit of luck to get you to that final table. The same thing in business and in life: you have to work hard and get a good education, but at some point you also need to catch that one lucky card to really be successful. The way you can improve those odds is by networking – you go out and you meet people. Every time you meet someone new, you get exposed to a potential opportunity – a new project, collaboration, or a new job. Not every opportunity is going to be worth pursuing and not every pursuit is going to be successful. However, the more people you meet and the more opportunities you uncover, it’s more likely that sooner or later you’re going to get that lucky break.
MO: How has your background and experience helped make you a networking expert?
Konstantin: I think the term “networking expert” gets overused quite a bit – I don’t go around at parties introducing myself as a networking expert. Networking and relationship building is a very personal experience for each one of us, and I think that everyone is ultimately their own networking expert. Networking is a means to an end for a very specific set of goals. Some people have done a bit more thinking about it and have experimented with it a bit more, and have some good advice for the rest of us to consider on how to get there.
Why do I think I can give someone some insights on how to get closer to becoming their own personal networking expert? I’ve had a variety of different experiences that have forced me to really think through the whole process of networking from a few different perspectives. Professionally, my background in very quantitative – my degree is in Economics and my professional career has been in finance, where I spend my time analyzing investments in a very structured environment. At the same time, because this is such a competitive industry, networking is a huge part of advancing your career. So you have these two opposing forces, which are seemingly at odds, coming together.
Outside of work, I’ve been involved in a variety of different entrepreneurial projects. Any time you’re trying to accomplish something entrepreneurial, you’re typically operating in an area where there are very few institutional processes, and you have to rely on networking very heavily, as opposed to the 9-5 world. If you want to have an average career, you don’t really need to network at all. There are channels that are set up – like job boards, and staffing services – where you can just click a button and be all set. There’s really nothing like that for entrepreneurial projects – you live or die by the relationships you have. It’s amazing how good at networking you become when you’re working with a shoestring budget. The mix of these various experiences – one very structured and professional and the other entrepreneurial – blended together to create a networking approach that is somewhat unique, in my opinion.
MO: Can you tell us a bit about the book you’re currently writing? How is the process coming along so far?
Konstantin: In short, this book is for people who want to be better at networking, but don’t really know where to start. From my experience, networking is not just about being smooth and polished but also about being strategic and analytical. It’s not about maximizing the number of people you meet at a networking event – it’s about setting your goals and understanding how you’re going to accomplish them, and seeing the long-term view. That’s really what the book is – a strategy guide to help you accomplish your professional goals through networking, and it encompasses all of the different concepts we’ve talked about so far. I think younger people – undergrad and graduate students, young professionals, first-time entrepreneurs – will probably benefit from the advice the most. However, there are concepts in there which would be really helpful to anyone who feels like they could use a bit of guidance or a fresh approach, even if they’ve been working for 20 or 30 years.
The other thing is that I don’t have “coaching” business that I want to promote. For many other authors out there, writing a book like this is a means to an end – it’s really a lengthy marketing piece for their business. I have a regular career which I’m very happy with, and that I am passionate about pursuing. For me, these are ideas that I’m passionate about that I want to share with others because I think it will be helpful. I have a website, but it’s just about the book and the ideas – I’m not trying to sell you career consulting services, or a seminar or a “networking kit”. (This is something I actually saw for sale when I visited a website for a NYT best-selling author). This goes back to the whole “networking expert” fad, and it really bothers me.
I hope to have the book out by the end of the summer – I’m currently leaning towards self-publishing, but I’m also open to the right publishing partnership. I’m in talks with a few publishers and am definitely considering that route as well. For anyone who interested, you can find out more at my website, www.networkingstrategyguide.com.
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