"The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity." - Keith Ferrazzi
The summer is coming to a close, and I am into my annual (ok, truth stretched a bit!) cleaning mode. As to be expected, my office closet always needs the most attention. And so this morning, I threw away over 250 business cards from one of the ever-expanding piles (none were my own old ones, though I have plenty of them!). Each card represented a person who gave it to me with good intentions to follow-up, though almost no one did so. And so the cards simply sat. Through the years, I have done the same with my cards – given them to people with the best of intentions to follow-up, and unfortunately, I almost never did so. It’s hard, especially in our technology–driven world, to remember to make those calls. Developing meaningful relationships takes more time and commitment than all of our technological short-cuts, but it is imperative. This is why networking has become such a large part of our business lexicon.
I believe in networking. I fully understand the goal of creating relationships that support, and often catapult, professional and personal growth. But I do not believe just attending networking events or sharing business cards, or having 1,000 social media “friends,” will translate to new friendships or impactful professional relationships.
Instead, I believe in the power, and pleasure, of creating authentic, mutually beneficial relationships. In the world of science, this is known as mutaualistic symbiotic relationships – relationships that equally benefit both participants. The impact grows logarithmically where there is trust, and when both participants are genuinely “working” for each other.
Here are some ideas I have used through the years to develop those relationships. They are not exhaustive, clearly. And each suggestion requires commitment. As we all know, everything competes for our time. It is not easy to make this the essential priority I know it should be. But the joys and successes of building mutually beneficial relationships far outweigh the shallow, often one-sided definition that many people frequently associate with networking. I am a firm believer that it is not how many people we know, but rather who we know well and how we work together to champion and support each other, that creates the successful symbiosis we desire from networking.
- Define your personal networking goals. This is imperative to inform and develop your networking strategy. Why do you want to build relationships? Is professional advancement within your company or outside your company important to you? Do you want to meet people that provide professional support and inspire you to acquire more professional knowledge? Do you want to explore other work related to your skills and experiences? Do you want to try new passions? Do you want to serve in leadership roles in associations?
- Develop your networking strategy. With what groups and individuals should you connect? Identify, join, and actively participate in, meaningful groups of professionals with whom you want to build authentic relationships. Proactively seek out those opportunities. These groups may be inside or outside your own company. They may be in your discipline or not. They might also include leadership groups, book clubs, associations, etc. They may also be not at all related to your actual work, but rather to a passion you want to pursue. Those relationships may take you into fields and areas that use your skills and interests in additional interesting ways. For instance, you might join a rock climbing group that renews your energy and passion around your work, while building relationships with extremely interesting leaders and risk takers in other work.
- Commit to calling one of your network advocates each week just to catch up. At the beginning of each month, write the date, time and person on your calendar for each week. Make this a consistent priority.
- Write a handwritten note to one of your network advocates each week to thank them for something meaningful they have done for you. Reminding ourselves of the professional generosity of others in our circles helps create meaningful pathways for continued connection.
- Schedule a “meal meeting” once a month with one of your mutual advocates. Remember breakfast - it may be the most effective time. You can begin early in the morning when you are both fresh, and it is easy to find a quiet place to share in confidence, even in an otherwise busy restaurant. Share your dreams and goals. Listen to theirs. Bottom line, how might you advocate for each other?
Above all, I have learned most clearly that I must authentically care about helping each network friend. I must be vigilant about searching for opportunities that will benefit them. I must be a connector for them throughout their career journeys. I must be their advocate and their champion. And I must be delighted to do all of the above.
Clearly, you don’t have to throw all of those cards away. Some may even cause you to remember an important previous connection or new opportunity. But I am certain that creating authentic, mutually beneficial relationships will be infinitely more fulfilling and rewarding than all of the cards in my stack.