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Have you ever heard the expression, "It’s not what you know but who you know"? The workplace of today is far different than it was even a few years ago, and everyone needs friends to survive. But networking is about far more than seeking referrals for new clients or a new job. When you build a solid network of stakeholders, admirers, and advisors, you become part of a professional community committed to helping each other grow and succeed.
This was especially evident at our 4th North America IDEA User Conference in Chicago where nearly 300 IDEA users gathered to collaborate, network and share best practices.
Let’s face it—the economic changes in the past decade have weakened the ties between organizations and their employees. This doesn’t mean loyalty is dead, but depending on the circumstances, it may no longer be embedded solely in an organization. For many professionals, loyalty has shifted to the web of human relationships in our networks.
"Always respect your coworkers," says Sam Carr, managing partner of Carrtegra, a Houston-based management consulting firm. "You may work with them again, even 20 or 30 years down the road." Carr began his career with Arthur Andersen in 1978 and has in the years since worked as a consultant, entrepreneur, and chief financial officer of a large organization. "When I’m mentoring a younger colleague, I’m often asked how to judge whether it’s worth it to cultivate a new contact. My answer is, it’s always worth it. The worst that can happen is that you make a new friend."
Of course, your network should include your current coworkers and clients, but it should also encompass former colleagues who have scattered throughout the new economy, as well as relationships you build through professional organizations locally or online. "You don’t want to be a pest," Carr notes, "but more people make the mistake of not staying in touch often enough. If you’re in town, have lunch or coffee with your contacts once every couple of months—keep the relationship warm. For contacts in other cities, I pull over and give them a call when I’m traveling or check in with them once or twice a year. It’s important professionally, and it’s enjoyable too."
"Always respect your coworkers. You may work with them again, even 20 or 30 years down the road.”
Your network is one of your most important assets—as important as the skills you have mastered and your portfolio of successes. But suppose your network is smaller or less robust than you want it to be. Most of us have already discovered that networking can be time-consuming and fruitless if not done mindfully. How can you invest your time wisely to build your network into a productive and rewarding web of relationships?
A good first step is to make a list of what you need to learn or achieve to be successful. Here are a few examples to get you started:
What needs are the most important to you right now? What goals can you set that will meet these needs? And what types of people do you need to know to help you reach those goals?
Networking with a professional organization is a great investment of your time. These days, your participation may be as much online as at monthly meetings or mixers, but act strategically when you build an online reputation. Carr advises, "LinkedIn is a powerful way to connect creatively with other professionals who share common interests. I’ve even used it to find great hires for my consultancy. I see no business benefit in the socializing on Twitter and similar sites—it’s fluff."
Building a network is a long-term commitment, not a drive-by. Have you ever heard of an auditor or fraud investigator who was an overnight success? In this business, a reputation is built carefully, through dogged effort, and the same is true of your network. To be an effective networker, you must consciously build trust and respect with your colleagues. You do that by giving to them some of your own knowledge or time (before you start asking them for help!), listening to others, taking an interest in their success, and having an open mind.
What if you’re an introvert? Join the club, Carr says. "It’s like jogging. The hardest part is putting on your shoes. Every time you exercise that muscle, it grows stronger. It’s work for introverts like myself to go to a business party or gathering. Treat it as an important part of your job. Put in the effort and keep the rewards in the front of your mind."
Those rewards are many. Struggling with dealing with a difficult client? Having an ethical dilemma? Need information but don’t know where to turn? Or maybe you have technical questions such as what auditing software to buy or what training classes are worth the time and money. Your network is full of people with the knowledge and expertise to help you out.
When the time comes when you are looking for a position, wouldn’t it is great if you already had a network of supporters who already know and trust you as a person who is flexible, meticulous, committed, and always willing to assist a colleague? In the job search, be honest and authentic about areas in which you could benefit from the advice of your connections. Don’t worry—your network knows you as a competent and congenial person. Your turn to "pay it forward" again will come soon enough!
There are a few caveats when it comes to networking. Avoid hidden motives, such as joining a committee just to get close to a particular contact. Respect your colleagues’ hard-earned expertise and don’t ask for advice that they normally charge for in the course of their work. And it’s always a good idea to avoid wading into the controversial or sensitive issues, especially when you are new to a group. People can have long memories when it comes to "taking sides"!
The audit profession can make for an immensely rewarding and enjoyable career. What are your goals? Could you benefit from the give and take of becoming active in a professional organization? Or should you do more to cultivate your existing ties? In either case, you can build and maintain a productive network to help you reach success. So what are you waiting for?