Meet the experts – networking pro Sue Tonks

You’re at a networking event. When you walk in the room who do you talk to?

The first thing to do, says Sue Tonks, who advises AAT accountants on networking, is scan the room. Then think shapes. Look for groups of people in an open shape, so there’s space for you to enter the group and conversation.

If two people are facing each other, it’s a closed position. If two people are standing on two sides of an imaginary triangle, it’s an “open two” and easier to join. Like parking a car. If a third person joins the conversation it closes the triangle.

“I show [people I train] how a room works,” Tonks says. “So when they walk into a room and it might have 50 people in it then they can automatically look and decide which groups to avoid and how to join, how to leave and how to get away from the boring person.”

When you’ve spotted an opening, say hi and ask if you can join their conversation.

Doh! It sounds obvious but according to Tonks a common mistake when networking is to stand by the edge of a circle, say nothing in the hope that someone will talk to you and feel embarrassed when they don’t notice you or talk to you.

Networking, in person or online through sites like LinkedIn, has become more important for accountants in the last 10 years, Tonks says.

Why? Previously, accountants were part of network of professionals (bankers, chartered surveyors and solicitors) who would refer work to each other. But eventually these networks of professionals couldn’t generate enough new business and had to widen their network, Tonks says.

Networking can create business opportunities and accelerate career development. It can also feel awkward and stressful.

“My job is to show…skills and techniques to make [networking] fun…and give them more confidence,” Tonks says.

One common fear is the “fear of rejection”. What happens in no one talks to me?

Another is not knowing how to keep a conversation going.

Tonks suggests four “icebreaker” questions: where the person has travelled to the event from, how the person knows the host of the networking event, their link to the type of event (e.g. fin tech, start-ups) and (of course), the weather.

When a fellow networker mentions a possible business opportunity it can be tempting to try to close the deal – for example, ask about their company’s turnover and fees they pay their advisers.

Tonks says that it’s better to carry on building rapport with the person and make small talk. Talk to others at the event then return to the person before you leave and say: “You mentioned that you’re bringing in another part of the business and you’re making some changes, one of things that we help businesses with is…Might it be worth our while having a bit more of a chat about it?”

Suggest meeting within a week or so for a coffee and say that you’ll call them. Email is “a chicken’s way out”, Tonks says.

Tonks, who is chatty and cheerful, has a varied career −  a “key note speaker, networking trainer, property owner and change leader”, according to her LinkedIn profile.

After university, she says that she was the first female management trainee for British Road Services, when it was owned by the government.

“I became a transport manager [in North West England] with an HGV and fork-lift truck licence. I learnt to pull vehicles out of ditches. All sorts of stuff. I ran my own depot. I’m only four-foot eleven so that always makes people laugh.”

While she was working in transport Tonks paid for training in management and communication skills, which she did in her spare time.

She worked in training and development, in the travel industry and at Training and Enterprise Councils.

About nine years ago, one person she trained was an accountant. He was good at getting in business and networking but “hated accountancy”. He asked Tonks if she could include some of his ideas about networking in a training programme.

Cross-pollination of ideas has worked well for Tonks, who advises having a plan B: An alternative source of income that’s not dependant on your main job.

Tonks clearly relishes a challenge. She will soon do a 10-day, 650-kilometre cycle through Laos and Cambodia to raise money for a Lendwithcare, a charity that lends money to poor people and small businesses to help them work their way out of poverty.

“I haven’t been on a bike in 40 years and I bought one in February. At 57 I am training for this.”

No doubt it’ll also be a good networking opportunity.

Nick Huber is a freelance journalist and has written for Accounting Technician magazine, The Guardian and BBC.

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