Networking — you either love it or hate it. I’m in the former camp. I figure the worst that can happen in a networking meeting is I meet an interesting new person. And the best is that I get a great new client. But for many people, networking is a wearisome and often intimidating grind. And so many business leaders avoid doing it.

Some of the worst offenders are leaders who are currently employed and not seeking a new role. It is very easy to get comfortable and complacent about networking in that situation. It’s a serious mistake, for several reasons. An excellent article in the Harvard Business review in 2007 explored this territory. In it, the authors describe three kinds of networking.

Operational networking

Operational networking is about building relationships inside your company to get work done. An example would be a marketing leader who builds a great relationship with the head of diversity to help him create messages that will engage new market segments.

Personal networking

Personal networking is about enhancing your professional development and exchanging referrals, mostly with people outside of your company. A good example is the Chicago Coaching Roundtable, a monthly forum I coordinate for executive coaches to come together and share best practices. It may seem counterproductive to meet with people who are technically your competitors, but we have so much to learn from each other that everyone walks away better equipped to help their clients.

Strategic networking

Strategic networking is about enlisting the support of people who can help you to achieve your strategic business goals. For example, a leader of a non-profit organization might network to build great relationships with entertainers who would then be willing to perform pro bono at a fundraising event.

As a leader rises up through an organization, she must master these three kinds of networking in succession. Early in her career, operational networking is the key to success. But by the time she is in an enterprise leadership role, she will need to utilize all three kinds of networking skillfully. How do you get good at this stuff? First, you have to get over the idea that networking is unimportant and/or sleazy. Finding a respected role model to emulate can help you figure out how to navigate networking in a way that feels authentic and productive. Then you have to consistently allocate time to networking, which can be a tough challenge. I suggest joining a professional group that has regular meetings to get you in the habit of leaving the office and swapping business cards. Lastly, you have to master both the art of giving to others — appreciating what would be helpful to them and finding ways to offer it — and the art of asking for what you need. It’s not easy, in fact, it’s a lifelong process, but learning to network effectively can open up tremendous opportunities for yourself and for the people you meet.

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