We are, as everyone knows, in the Networked Century. Our ability to succeed, compete, prosper will depend more than ever before on the quality and quantity of our networks, and our ability to work them. I’ve written elsewhere about the advantage this gives outward looking countries like Britain and Lebanon.
Diplomats tend to approach networking as gifted amateurs. We don’t want to appear to be trying too hard – better to breeze through, apparently effortlessly. But we now need to take a more professional approach to this most traditional of diplomatic skills.
The diplomatic reception is only one type of networking, and more 19th than 21st century statecraft. But it is still an important part of what we do, and of the wider effort to build useful relationships. It is also the most parodied, whether you subscribe to the misplaced but (if we’re honest) alluring idea of glamorous diplomats swapping spy stories while the champagne flows; or the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent conclusion that we’re now about ‘cheap wine, plastic cups and sponsorship by Easyjet’.
In reality, diplomatic receptions are of course not as glittering as the popular stereotype suggests. But nor do we use plastic cups when we need to impress on behalf of the UK brand. Nor do our events “tend to degenerate into stagnant pools in which the same old carp circle round and round gazing at each other with lacklustre eyes”, as Harold Nicolson wrote in 1961. Most of the time anyway.
I asked seasoned private sector networkers, and some of our best diplomats, for their tips on how to handle these receptions in a more professional way. Here are some:
1. Don’t look desperate: don’t be the first to arrive or the last to leave, and don’t thrust your business card at people until you think they might actually keep it.
2. Be the connector, put interesting people together.
3. Look past the title, get some personal information, and find a way to remember it.
4. Have a clear sense of what you want people to be saying about you afterwards and how that builds your professional and national brand (clue – it should not just be ‘he’s very nice’).
5. It is better that others tell people why you’re of interest than that you do it yourself.
6. Engage, don’t transmit. Above all, do it with purpose. Are you building relationships that in turn build the national interest? If you’re still talking about the weather after two minutes, move on, or resign.
7. Keep moving, but never get caught looking over people’s shoulders for more productive targets.
8. Don’t just focus on the grandest people in the room. Those that do so stand out a mile, and frighten the ‘important’ people away (unless they simply want their egos buffed). You get more useful interaction from a less senior adviser who wants to talk to you than a VIP who just wants an audience.
9. Convening power is huge. Host events people want to attend not just because of you but because they know interesting people will be there.
10. Think about both the size and quality of your network. Not just about having the most business cards or LinkedIn contacts but the depth of the relationships.
To remain competitive, relevant and necessary, diplomats need to hone the skills that help them make their countries more secure and better off. Not all of these involve a smartphone, whatever you read elsewhere on this blog. None of them, sadly, involve expensive chocolate.