Running a business can feel like a constant battle between addressing the challenges of today and planning for the challenges of tomorrow. For manufacturers, this becomes a balancing act of time and resources. Future issues are just that; issues to worry about in the future. It’s about preparing for a problem that may not exist yet, developing strategies to attract talent that is still learning, and working toward a goal that remains a far-away dream. By comparison, today’s issues are always front-and-center. It’s the first problem to hit you walking in the door and the last thing you think about when you head home.

Today’s issues can be overwhelming and force manufacturing leaders to be so laser-focused on what’s happening now that they lack the time to plan for what’s down the road.

Successful manufacturers should work to bring balance to these two mindsets. Succeed today but always be planning for the future.

“Manufacturers can easily become lost in the day-today operations of their facility and the smaller your business is, and the more every decision requires your input, the more difficult it becomes to have that strategic, future-focused mentality all good leaders need,” said Chuck Hadden, MMA president & CEO. “It’s important to maximize your energy when and where you can to begin thinking and strategizing for your company’s future.”

Networking is an often-underutilized skill that all current and emerging leaders should apply to their routine. Sometimes it can feel tedious or the ROI may seem to be lacking but, in almost all cases, those leaders who regularly network can look back, many times years later, at individual moments as essential to their brand’s success.

“The positive effect networking can have on a company can be measured with the number of times you need or search out advice or help beyond your walls,” suggested Phil Sponsler, president of Jackson’s Orbitform and the 2017 John G. Thodis Michigan Manufacturer of the Year Award recipient. “Participating in and being able to rely on a strong network of thought leaders in manufacturing, sales, marketing, engineering or any discipline can be the difference between growing your business or closing it all down.”

What’s the right way to network? How do you get the most out of it? Some of Michigan’s leading manufacturers shared their simple strategies for success.

Remember to Give, Give, Give
When you walk into an event, the natural instinct is to get as much out of it for you as possible and that includes how you approach networking. Fight that instinct! One of the best strategies for effective networking is to be a giver rather than a taker.

“Effective industry networking requires some ‘give and take.’ If you only take, your networking contacts will tire of the one-way information exchange and ultimately resist sharing their insights,” said Gary Carr, vice president of sales for the Williamston-based Bekum America. “It may feel strange, but resist trying to sell yourself and/or your company when networking. Share your knowledge of the issues, share your experiences and, most importantly, listen.”

Networking events can fly by quickly and it’s important to remember that you aren’t networking for a single moment or for a single resource, you are relationship-building. What you do during those brief networking opportunities can develop into long-term, reliable relationships you can turn to throughout your career. By becoming a source of free advice and acting as a listening ear, you’ll gain the trust of others who can help you and the challenges you face.

But do it honestly and do it for the greater good of helping the whole industry grow.

“The worst things you can do when trying to network is be phony or be a user,” reminded Sponsler. “Anybody can sense when someone is just looking for what’s in it for them. A lack of sincerity is the kiss of death when it comes to high value discussion. Everyone has had that conversation with someone who is constantly looking around the room for their next point of contact and it all begins to feel so fake.”

Sponsler continued, adding that you’ll get the most out of networking “when you remember to see the importance of every conversation, treat them all with respect and be genuine — the results of your next seemingly random conversation could be what changes your business forever.”

Where to Network and How?
Just as important as knowing what kind of networker you should be is understanding where and how to network. Your time is valuable and you do want to get the most out of every second you’re away from your facility.

The team at Bekum America has mastered the art of making the most out of networking with dedicated salespeople traveling to meet potential new partners as well as a leadership team who sees the value in getting out of their mid-Michigan facility to build connections.

“It may feel strange, but resist trying to sell yourself and/or your company when networking. Share your knowledge of the issues, share your experiences and, most importantly, listen.” — Gary Carr, Bekum America

“You can’t be everywhere and you can’t ignore day-to-day operations either, so for us it’s about selecting where and how we network,” said Steve London, Bekum America’s president and COO.

Carr concurred, adding that “industry trade shows and conferences are obviously great opportunities for networking with leading non-competing industry suppliers and our customers themselves.”

Another great opportunity for networking with peers and avoiding disingenuous salespeople are professional organizations at the regional, state and national levels.

“Professional societies often tend to have higherlevel participation from within the industry and we tend to work together towards the common good of the industry, which often minimizes the stigma of people just trying to sell something,” Carr offered. “If you put the effort in, what you receive back will bring significant dividends over the long term.”

Continuing that point, London said that “through active participation with local groups, state and national organizations and MMA — each of these can help you develop relationships, meet new contacts and utilize the knowledge and experiences of your peers.”

Overcoming Common Challenges
As with anything in business, networking has its challenges. Time constraints can deter manufacturers from networking in the first place, while a passive approach to the process can stop them from trying it a second time.

“Poor workplace time management can ruin your chances to network — people are often too busy or simply distracted,” Carr explained. “They resist joining professional societies for fear of the associated time commitments and, at industry trade shows or conferences, they even skip out on the organized social events to return to work. If you choose to network, be there fully, otherwise excellent networking possibilities — and real chances to grow your business — are missed.”

Finally, for the manufacturer who does take the initiative to regularly network, it’s important to also be proactive and engaged in the way you network in order to get the most out of it.

“Avoid the tendency to sit by and watch; become engaged,” London suggested. “At times it may seem daunting, but by engaging you’ll find more new ideas. It also helps to step outside your comfort zone. Speak with other ages and other industries; many times, this will bring your views into a new perspective and introduce you to a wider range of peers.”

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Your company’s present needs cannot be ignored but sacrificing your future is shortsighted and a recipe for disaster. Remember to work with your leadership team to identify available time and resources for a broader networking strategy that plans for tomorrow while still allowing for success today.

“In the words of NIKE, ‘just do it,’” London said. “Meet people, expand your horizons, and listen to others. There is a wealth of knowledge waiting to be explored. Take advantage of it.”

For more information on networking strategies, opportunities across Michigan to meet fellow manufacturers and ways to maximize your MMA membership through relationship-building, contact MMA at 517-487-8533.