If there’s one person who knows about making strong and meaningful connections it’s Pinky Lilani. Pinky set up the Asian Women of Achievement Awards back in 1999 and is also founder of the Women of the Future Network, a network of high potential and high achieving UK women. Throughout her career she has displayed adept skill at putting individuals at ease and making them feel like they’re the most important person in the room.
A very good question. I don’t see myself as a good networker. I just see myself as a person very interested in people. I find the word ‘networking’ a bit transactional, and I don’t like that. I love stories; I love hearing about what people do. I have a huge curiosity about people’s lives.
You need to be genuine – not just talk to someone for the sake of it. I think it’s nice if you can follow something up with a person. If you have a really good conversation and there’s nothing to follow up and then it’s dead. There’s no network.
You need to be interesting, too. People want to meet interesting people. Networking isn’t just about having good contacts it’s actually about having good relationships. You can’t have a relationship if it’s just a one off.
For most people, their favourite topic is themselves; ask them what they do, really listen to them, encourage them through non-verbal communication and be really interested.
Being self-deprecating helps, too. If you start talking about how great you are, that doesn’t put anyone at ease. Everyone feels at ease if they don’t feel like they’re being judged or are expected to give a smart answer. I’m at ease with people who I think are really interested in what I have to say or think I’m good fun to be with.
Sometimes when people are nervous they can overcompensate by saying too much about themselves, and actually there’s no real need to do that. I think that it really doesn’t help their case. The important thing is to just be yourself.
Whatever you do and at whatever level, we’re all valuable. We all need each other to feed into. If you have 20 very senior people that’s boring. The real dance takes place when you have different voices in the conversation – of all ages and experience. I hate going places where someone really senior is just holding court. I find that really boring.
Be kind. Think, how can I add value to someone? Be yourself. Be enthusiastic. A good sense of humour helps as it endears people to you. Make someone feel like they’re the only person in the room.
There’s a great story about Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, who shared her experiences of dining with William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli – both of whom were competing to be Prime Minister. She said: “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”
This was because Disraeli put her at ease – asking her questions and listening intently to her answers. This made her feel good about herself and to feel important.
Generosity is also important. Letting someone know that they’re doing a good job and suggesting ways they can use their skills even further – even if they’re really junior. You don’t need to flatter, you need to be authentic. And, you should do it because you want to, not because you want it to be returned.
You also need to be present. When you go to business networking events so many people’s eyes are darting around, looking for the next person to talk to but you need to give your all to one conversation. Obviously if it goes on for too long and a person is just talking about themselves, then you need to extricate yourself. A good way to do that is to tell them: “I’m sure so many people want to talk to you, I don’t want to take up all your time and monopolise you, so I’ll let other people have a chance,” and then you can move away. That avoids any embarrassment.
It’s good to have a wide and varied network. Some people are very insular and only associate with people like themselves. My joy comes from meeting and mixing with all types of people – so an architect meets a media person, meets an entrepreneur, meets a politician – that’s much more interesting than being in your own silos.
You should only maintain relationships if you like the person and if there’s some kind of synergy. People have limited time for relationships and networks, so you have to identify the ones that are important to you – the ones that make you feel like a better person, that help you grow, and then you have to keep in touch with them.
Ask not what somebody can do for you, but what you can give to them. When you meet someone, you open what we like to call an emotional bank account, where you make deposits and you make withdrawals. You have to make more deposits than withdrawals, because that keeps the relationship healthy.
When I know someone wants to meet someone else I know I’ll do the introduction without them asking me. It’s about being aware, being present, thinking about people’s needs without them even expressing them. You really need to want to do it with authenticity.
You also need new people coming into networks and to events, that’s what keeps the energy going.
To find out more about the 2018 Asian Women of Achievement Awards.