When I started my business back in the early 90's, the concept of "networking" hadn't yet been formally identified as a tangible tool for business or career development. In fact, I had never even heard of the term "networking" until one of my clients invited me as a guest to the monthly dinner meeting of a group called the National Network of Sales Professionals. She explained that this group consisted of small / solo business professionals who shared best sales practices and referred potential clients to each other on a regular basis.
I joined this group shortly after visiting that meeting and remained an active member until the group folded just before the year 2000. During my membership, I participated in fundraising projects, served as publicity chair for 2 years, and ultimately became the group's business manager. I also used the services of and referred business to my fellow members and received many referrals in return, who are clients that I still work with today.
What I didn't realize back then is that I was engaged in the "simple art" of networking, by just being myself and interacting genuinely with my fellow members. I didn't join this group with high expectations that business would come my way nor did I count the business cards I collected. I just showed up at meetings and participated in the activities. The referrals that I did receive were byproducts of my involvement with the group. Networking, as I knew it, was working for me!
Fast-forward to the 21st century: "networking" has evolved into a "complex science" to include a maze of business and social networking websites - such as LinkedIn, Friendster, Ryze, MySpace and others -- and there are hundreds of books on the subject of networking. To add to the mix, there are even organizations that sponsor mega-networking and speed-networking events where you are told to bring hundreds of cards with you and network-network-network until you drop! Whew!!!
What is wrong with this picture?
Amidst all this technological confusion and distractions, it seems like we've almost forgotten what the true definition of "networking" really is. To quote Scott Ginsburg, author of the article: "7 Habits of Highly Horrible Networkers", "networking" is simply this: "Building mutually beneficial relationships."
Yes, that's all it really is!
So, networking is NOT about the number of connections you have on networking sites or how many business cards you collect at a networking event. Networking IS about the quality of mutually-beneficial relationships that you'll develop over time.
Now, please understand: I love technology and am intrigued with the idea that networking sites can help boost a career. Now that I have my new website launched, I am considering the possiblity of using these tools myself. However, my pet peeve with social and business networking sites is that some people treat them with an impersonal "numbers game" mindset or as substitutes for one-on-one relationship-building.
To illustrate my point, here's an example of someone who contacted me through LinkedIn, who clearly operated from a "numbers game" perspective:
"Hello Joellyn. Let's see if we can help each other. I found you while I was searching my network at LinkedIn. Let's connect directly, so we can help each other with referrals. If we connect, both of our networks will grow. To add me as your connection, just follow the link below."
Here's how I responded:
"Thanks for your invitation. Since we have similar businesses, I would like to schedule a phone visit with you, so we can get better acquainted and learn more about each others' offerings as well as the types of referrals and/or help we are seeking. My office hours are typically 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. M-F and M-W-Th evenings from 7-9 p.m., by appointment. Please let me know what might work for you over the next couple of weeks and we'll go from there."
Guess what? I never got a response from him, even after following up with a couple of voicemail messages. What I did get was a forwarded message from him (sent to others as well) with information about the "Mega-Networking Event of the Century" -- but he never once acknowledged my email or voicemail messages. So much for wanting to help each other! Needless to say, I declined his LinkedIn invitation and moved on.
Of course, not all my experiences with LinkedIn invitations have worked out this way. My point is this: By all means, use social networking sites if you feel that they can help your career. But don't neglect offline methods for relationship-building, which can be implemented with or without a presence on a social networking site. Here are some "tried and true" suggestions:
· Join an association or club that is of interest to you. Get involved and become known as the "go-to" person for whatever your area of expertise happens to be.
· Communicate considerately - and often! Return all telephone calls, emails, and written correspondence in a timely manner. Apologize for unusually late responses.
· Express appreciation for gifts, referrals, and random acts of kindness.
· Congratulate colleagues, business associates, family and friends on recent accomplishments or good fortune.
· Offer helpful information, such as a newspaper article or key resource, depending on the person's needs.
· Be sure to thank everyone who has introduced you to an important contact, passed on a job lead, provided you with a great reference, or convinced a hiring manager to interview you -- regardless of the outcome.
Doing any or all the above will set you apart from "numbers game" networkers, and will engage you in the "simple art" of relationship-building that networking was meant to be.
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