Most engineering managers are too busy 'getting the job done' to spend time developing soft skills. But improving your networking technique is one you can't afford to overlook. E&T discusses a new book on the subject.
One oft he first things I learned in management is that 'people do business with people'. At the time I thought it was just one of those throwaway one-liners bandied about by old-school managers who had learnt their trade in the University of Hard Knocks ' one of those cliched phrases that sounds good, but doesn't mean a great deal. After all, I had my (to me) impressive qualifications, a smart new office and a big enough budget to allow me to get the job done.
The weeks rolled uneventfully by, and before long the penny dropped that work isn't actually all that difficult, providing you put in long hours and write lots of reports. I was doing all right, or so I thought. But then it dawned on me that some of my colleagues were more successful in the company than I was. Conspicuously more successful. What were they doing right?
Terry, for one, always seemed to be jetting around on glamorous overseas junkets chasing down big contracts and installing the company's flagship applications. Then there was Graham: he always hit bonus, changed his company car every six months and was always being invited to tantalising secretive meetings. Meanwhile, I was stuck in what was now a rabbit hutch with a meaningless certificate on the wall and a budget that seemed to contract every time the director of finance looked at me.
Successful business relationships
This dilemma is exactly the kind dealt with by Frances Kay's 'How to Build Successful Business Relationships'. Published by the IET as part of its Management of Technology series, it's a reference manual for how to develop your social and professional network, increase your rapport with colleagues and customers, and develop business contacts. It's indispensable for anyone who's ever despaired of 'getting on'. The author warns early on that, while any one can acquire a degree of proficiency in networking, it does require a certain amount of practice and curiosity.
'Curiosity' may seem like an odd word to apply to something as serious as business, but it's an important observation, because if you can't display interest in the people you do business with, how can you reasonably expect them to return the compliment? It's also a vital characteristic for the successful engineering manager, but there should be no worries there. As a type, our interest in technology and its application virtually guarantees we have enquiring minds.
Be warned, though: having an enquiring mind doesn't necessarily mean that we're any good at schmoozing. It's one of those things you're either good at or not ' you're either a natural or there's no hope, right? Wrong.
According to Kay, you can and should develop these techniques. And if you're a bit dubious about this then you need only flick through 'How to Build Successful Business Relationships' and pause at a few of the networking hint panels. Here are a few taken at random:
- If you need to get on with people who are not like you, try adopting the chameleon approach; change colour to suit the environment you're in;
- No relationship will be perfect; neither will it be quick or easy to achieve. In fact, the old saying 'less haste, more speed' is very apt;
- Remember your voice is an instrument, just like your body. It is also, like your body, very flexible. You know the expression, 'It's not what you say, it's the way you say it.' That couldn't be more true.
The value of networking cannot be overstated. Kay comes up with a telling statistic, when she tells us that 97 per cent of business professionals believe that it's not what, but who you know, that gains you better access to success. What this statistic means is that effectively we all believe in the power of networking. Logically, if we all believe in it, it should be a self-fulfilling prophecy and all we have to do is learn the rules.
Task awareness is fine, and being good at your job, as the author says, is eminently desirable. But, if you can harness these qualities with being passionate about people, it will take you further, faster. As Kay says: 'those who tackle this area and get it right have the opportunity to positively influence the growth and profitability of their organisation'.
Of course it's also a career booster ' in an ideal world the more you deliver to your company in terms of bottom-line success, the more they will return to you.
That's the theory. So how does Kay recommend that we do this, and in what way is 'How to Build Successful Business Relationships' different or better than other similar books on the subject? Well the truth is that nearly every scrap of advice between these two covers is available elsewhere. It may not be so well presented formally, and it may not be so consistently concise and easy to understand, but the book breaks no new ground. And the reason for this is that there is no new ground to break. The rules are the same as they have always been: be positive, take an interest, do your research, while being approachable, knowledgeable and sincere.
Organisation is also a key ingredient in the mix for the successful networker. And, as if to prove her point, Kay has marshalled her material with military precision, leading us from the starting position of 'What is meant by Business Relationships?' right through to the concluding checklists for success.
Along the way she examines why people network, how to make connections, where to make a start, rising to new challenges, how to get the communication going and managing other people. She then pauses to allow the reader to reflect on whether the exercise is actually working, before concentrating on a key section called 'Results, referrals and rewards' where we start to examine the benefits of her opening assertion that 'people do business with people'. This is where my befuddlement at the success of Terry and Graham could have felt the benefit.
But the real value of this new book is that it is a master class in positive reinforcement. Even the most experienced of managers gets lazy, cuts corners, think that some of the basics no longer apply to him or her. And 'How to Build Successful business Relationships' is a down-to-earth reality check for these people as well as a perfect primer for those setting out in their first management positions.
The odd thing is that nothing's really changed. The likes of Terry and Graham will still streak ahead of their peers, not because they know more about gate arrays or butterfly valves, but because they play squash with the boss and take the technicians out for the occasional pint. They succeed because they take the time to get to know their colleagues, refuse to hide behind their certificates and understand the benefits of performing together in a team that ' if it wins ' brings rewards to all concerned. There's nothing cynical about this: it's called playing the game, and if you want to play it too you need to learn the rules.
'How to Build Successful Business Relationships' (ISBN 978-0-86341-956-0, price '29.00) is published by the IET and is No27 in its Management of Technology Series.