The Power of Network

Fred Smith writes from a life-time of experience in the art and science of networking.

By Fred Smith

Networking has been my specialty. It was my only asset starting into business. I had no money, no skill, no profession, no family support and no degree from college. Ironically, two institutions of higher learning have taken pity on my ignorance and awarded me honorary Doctor of Law degrees. When I started out, I knew that I needed to identify my strengths and create an intentional plan for using my uniqueness. I had the ability to make friends who would take an interest in helping me. I called it networking. When my first book was being titled, my friend Paul Robbins, Executive Vice President of Christianity Today International, suggested that the title should be, You and Your Network because "that is what you do best." There are over 100,000 in print.

To me, networking involves two basic ingredients: mutual interest or advantage and continual contact. Many have created mutual interests but few are disciplined to maintain contact.

First, let's consider mutual interest. From Will McGrath, the Cincinnati industrialist, I learned that "business friendship is mutual advantage." That is realistic, not cynical. If either fails or stops being rewarded by the relationship, it dies……not suddenly or even with hostility, but simple atrophy through disuse. Therefore, if we are to have an active network we must be certain to bring something of value to the party.

Occasionally I speak to one of the many "networks" that have sprung up in the last few years in business and professional communities. I always emphasize the need of mutual profit. Those who want a free ride, getting without giving, soon find themselves out of the loop.

I am part of several groups that have met for years. Even with our long track record, I make it a point to go prepared with something to offer. Have you been part of a network that has outgrown its usefulness but temporarily continues with no productive reason? Mutual advantage must be present. Each member must carry his own weight.

Next is constant contact. I mean a reasonable method for keeping in touch. This seems to be more difficult for men than for women. We seem to relate only around activities. We eat together, play golf or go to sporting events. Seldom do we just meet to " get together." Women, on the other hand, relish times to just spend time. They relate because that is the important part of the interaction….. they enjoy being, not just doing. I have always laughed at the way women will go en masse to the restroom at a social event. You would never find men doing that!

However, keeping up relationships even when we are not directly involved in a particular activity is essential to good networking. For example, my friend Guy Martin is the best networker that I know. He really stays in touch. Early in the morning the phone will ring and it is Guy saying, "Just wanted to keep up or stay in touch." What a nice thing to do, but how few do it.

I remember Dick Halverson, retired Chaplain of the US Senate telling about the days when he was pasturing and he would visit his church members at their place of business. At first they couldn't believe that he just wanted to know them at their work. Each thought he was slipping up on them to take a church responsibility or to increase their giving. Finally, they believed he only wanted to know them better. Through the years I have become convinced that if I were isolated in a cold house without heat I would prefer to have Dick than a furnace. He can warm up any room he enters. He personifies the integrity of networking.

In the early years of travel there were no non-stop flights. I found that I could take 3x5 cards with contact information on all the people that I knew in the layover cities and call from the airport. This purposeful system of contact created a life-long network. When I read I am constantly thinking of one friend or another. It is easy to jot down a word on a post-it note and drop it in the mailbox. This reinforces that you were thinking of them --- and how to be helpful. It also makes reading lots more fun!

Networking really isn't that difficult. It's like keeping your fences or your roof repaired. There are so many ways of staying in touch… everything from a complex contact software system to a simple word through friends, "please give him my regards."