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Vital skills that can turn your contacts into a professional network

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LinkedIn users have an average of 400 connections. But does the size of your network translate into professional success? Research suggests that having more contacts can actually be counter-productive. For project professionals, success depends more on our ability to build relationships through collaboration. Here are six skills that can help to transform your contacts into a professional network.

One of the key capabilities that can determine a project manager’s effectiveness is ‘Network Performance’, according to Gartner senior director Kristin Mettraux in her recent webinar “Is the Project Manager Role Dead in Digital Delivery?” ‘Network Performance’ is described as how well you build and leverage your professional network. The strength of your network and connections can make it much easier to progress the goals of your project team by breaking down silos and having a broader influence outside your formal role.

Quality not quantity

What Gartner is highlighting here is the critical skill of relationship building. Events, meetups and conferences present opportunities to meet more people, but adding contacts to our LinkedIn network is not enough. Turning contacts into valuable alliances requires investment of time and energy to build a relationship with each one.

The importance of relationship building is also highlighted in an article published by Harvard Business Review in December 2019. Success comes from having strong connections with people across a broad network that you can tap into to get work done. The behaviour that leads to success is collaboration.

Six skills to master

So, when we have decided who we want to engage and work together with, what are the secrets to nurturing a collaborative relationship? Here are some skills that are recommended by Professor Francesca Gino:

  1. Be clear about what you want to achieve
    Successful networkers are efficient, freeing up time to invest in any collaboration and ensuring that time is spent on adding value to the relationship.
    Our goals may be fairly abstract when we initiate a new connection. Exploring each other’s interests and reasons for collaborating can help to clarify objectives and agree a structure for working together efficiently.
  1. Lead and follow
    Successful collaborators add value to interactions but also respect the knowledge and ideas of others, flexing between leadership and followership to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.
    Successful leaders connect with people in a wide variety of functions, geographies and business units.
    While, it may feel like you’re being pushy and self-promoting don’t downplay the knowledge and skills that you bring to the relationship. Research suggests that collaboration is most effective, generating better ideas, when people highlight and capitalise on their differences, rather than hiding them.
    Acknowledge your differences as well as what you have in common and discuss how each party can add value.
  1. Practise empathy
    Successful networkers recognise that people have different perspectives and working styles. They adapt their own behaviour and communication to encourage and facilitate efficient collaborative processes.
    People also have shifting priorities, other demands on their time and external influences. When the other party’s behaviour is unexpected or unhelpful, seek to understand the constraints that may be causing a problem.
  1. Get comfortable with feedback
    Successful collaboration involves being able to give and receive feedback. As leaders we may be used to providing feedback to team members. Collaboration is a different situation where we don’t have authority. It can feel awkward to provide feedback that may not be entirely positive. Rather than damaging a relationship, constructive feedback adds value by enabling learning and development; and it can facilitate a common understanding about how to work together effectively.
  1. Stop talking, listen
    We often think that we are listening but we're actually busy thinking about how to respond. Not listening can lead to misunderstanding, wasted time, and missed opportunities. Giving off signals that we’re not paying attention can undermine any respect and trust that you may have established.
  1. Learn to say no
    Beware collaboration overload. We all face workplace pressure to help colleagues and be a ‘team player’. There will also be demands on your time from other people seeking to build their own networks of useful contacts. Deflecting collaboration requests can feel bad, but the advice is to learn how to say ‘no’.
    Your time and energy are finite resources. Each request to participate in a project leaves less available for your own work, especially when you take switching costs into consideration.

On a day to day basis we work with and can get to know colleagues and stakeholders because our jobs and business processes require us to interact. Building a professional network requires us to create opportunities to work with people outside of our formal roles. This is where membership with the Association for Project Management can help. Lots of opportunities may exist through your local branches and Specific Interest Groups, such as research, workshops or other mini projects that facilitate cross-functional teams who want to work together. So start nurturing those collaborative relationships and turn those numbers on LinkedIn into a professional network.

You can learn more about engaging your stakeholders in our APM Learning portal.

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