Networking is a necessary part of a professional career today. The data tells us that the majority of people searching for new jobs find the best positions through their network connections. It’s also how we learn about new opportunities, expand our world view, and see new possibilities. Networking is also the best way to get things done inside an organization. The most effective professionals develop key contacts willing to share their expertise and help us cut through red-tape. No one can know everything; we need others to successfully complete complicated projects and intricate research. Good networks help us identify key partners for innovative collaboration and productive team work.

Having trusted advisors and colleagues means we don’t have to go it alone and it increases our chances to establish relationships that can help us in ways we can’t possible anticipate. Networks help us develop as professionals, grow as people, and function more efficiently day-to-day. They help us learn, they help us grow, and they help us navigate life’s difficulties. Networks are a vital part of life and very often they can help us achieve our long-term goals. But if networks clearly provide value and are such an essential part of today’s complex world, why doesn’t everyone have one? Simple – it’s because building a vital, useful network and maintaining it long-term is really, really hard work.

Successful networking is all about building relationships – something that takes time, courage, and commitment. It requires you go out into the world, meet people, speak with people, listen to people and share yourself. It requires you take risks and open yourself up to new ideas; prepare yourself to respect difference; and position yourself to consider undiscovered possibility. Professional organizations, mentor programs, volunteering, team projects, work groups, discussion groups, book clubs, conferences, workshops are all viable options.

In addition, in today’s world there are multiple virtual options that allow you to connect with a global audience you may not meet in person. You can join on-line communities related to your interests, comment on blog posts, participate in online discussion groups, or seek advice on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or a myriad of other venues. Choose things that appeal to you, fit your lifestyle and your personality – try them out and if they don’t suit you; seek others that do. If you really can’t find something that works, you can always start something yourself. Write a blog, start a community, launch a discussion group, or form a dinner club. There are so many options.

Getting start can seem intimidating if this sort of thing is new to you. Here are a few steps that have helped us get organized:

1. Determine what you want from your networking efforts – while networks can serve multiple purposes overtime, it’s best to identify your main objective to give you focus.
2. Do a bit of research – don’t let this become such a distraction that it prevents you from getting out there, but identifying potential networking venues inside and outside your organization is helpful.
3. Ask your friends and your colleagues – they share your interests; know you as a person; and you trust them. It’s a natural place to start.
4. Jump in and try it – don’t over think it, attend with an open mind and give it a fair chance. Don’t go just once, go at least 3 times. You need data to make an informed decision and no one feels comfortable the very first time they attend something.
5. Go prepared – bring business cards and establish a goal (e.g. I will meet two new people before I leave tonight).
6. Keep an open mind – don’t judge until you have the facts to make an informed decision.
7. Don’t expect too much – relationships take time, don’t expect to accelerate the process, be realistic.
8. Participate – ask questions, show an interest, partake in the discussion, and raise your hand.
9. Converse with the intent to get to know someone – exchange conversation with the objective of getting to know someone a bit. When you see them a second time, be sure to pick up where you left off.
10. Don’t ask for things right away – it’s impolite to ask someone you barely know to help you find a new job. You can let everyone know you are looking, but let them decide if they want to offer help.
11. Be prepared to help – people are more inclined to help you if you have shown your willingness to help them. Be the first one to offer help and it is a lot easier to ask for help later.
12. Follow-up – after the event, send LinkedIn invitations to new contacts (if you had a conversation and you exchanged business cards this is perfectly appropriate).
13. Technology can help, but it is not a substitute for a relationship – whether you are connecting with people face-to-face or connecting online, trusted relationships are the key to productive networks.

Creating a connection with people using technology is possible, but it does pose interesting challenges. Our experience tells us that any relationship develops over time. Following a blog or a discussion group and commenting often (in a substantive way), starting discussions yourself and connecting with people who comment helps you to establish your reputation as a serious professional. Offering help, connecting through LinkedIn, commented on someone’s status updates are natural moments that strengthen relationships. Having a picture on your LinkedIn profile also helps – it humanizes you.

Finally, networks work best when you start building them before you are in crisis. It’s easier to look for a job when you have one; apply the same principle to networking. Build it before you need it so you can leverage it when you do. Establishing a robust network inside and outside your organization is smart and professionally necessary. Maintaining it even when everything is going great is even smarter so you are fully prepared for the life changes that are sure to come tomorrow.

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I spoke with many interesting, smart people last week who are struggling with the whole social media, virtual networking thing. These people are small business owners, consultants, corporate citizens and people in “transition” (the new PC term for professionals currently between jobs). They are men and women, mostly over 40 who are trying to understand this new trend. Every one of them expressed uneasiness about social media. They keep hearing about it, they feel they’re behind somehow and yet they are also very, very wary. Can’t really blame them – social media is a big game changer and it can seem pretty overwhelming at first.

I’ve written about this before – virtual connectivity does level the playing field. It presents unprecedented opportunities to people who are really effective “connectors”. Interesting personalities attract attention. Think of the really charismatic people in your communities. They naturally collect a crowd and that crowd is open to their influence. Now think 450M+ Facebook users, 60+M LinkedIn business people, 1B+ YouTube content viewers – translate that to a business context and figure out the business possibilities for charismatic personalities or appealing brands with influence online. Not surprising that so many people are talking about it.

But I think the anxiety I am hearing isn’t about a lack of awareness or a lack of interest. Social media is pretty visible and lots of people are taking notice. I believe people’s concerns have more to do with how this new technology highlights our discomfort with networking in general. And while it is true that technology intimidates many people, we use it to mask the real issue – networking requires us to put ourselves out there and risk rejection. Uncomfortable? You bet!

People generally can manage one-to-one contact with someone they don’t know well, either face-to-face or online. But think about it, how much do you enjoy walking into a room of people you don’t know (at a conference, an event or even a cocktail party)? People are often overwhelmed by crowds. Now take it online where you have to do something uncomfortable (networking) with extremely large groups of people you can’t see, living in places you have never been and do things you don’t necessarily understand. Liberating or terrifying – take your pick.

I think women have a bit of an advantage in this new world right now. Women are natural social connectors and social media gives them a mechanism to go global and stay in touch with friends and family spread out all over the world. I suspect this is why the largest growing social network user demographic is women 50+. I realize this is a gross generalization; there are many women who struggle as much as men. I also realize this is changing a bit as a younger generation (women and men) grows up (literally) online. But as a general rule, women do talk more to other women, women do recommend things to each other all the time, women do turn to each other when they need to solve problems and that’s what social networking is currently all about.

Ironically, this “social connector” skill may pose a problem for women in the long run and return the advantage to the guys. Men are fundamentally better at using their networks for business, women, not so much. If men can get past some of their fears about working virtually and bring their business orientation to social networking venues, they may see better business results. Unless women leverage their natural strengths while they develop the business savvy to capitalize on these market opportunities, they may lose out in the long run. The social networking economy is forming and eventually it will mature. The people who learn how to successful navigate this new context will have an advantage. At the moment, it’s anyone’s game to win and it’s anyone’s game to lose.

I listen to NPR all the time and one of my favorite shows is Marketplace Money .  These folks are smart, savvy and easy to understand – it’s a great place to catch up on my financial news and hear what’s up in the consumer market.  This weekend, they ran their normal “Getting Personal” segment and I was, once again, humbled by the new world order that any business with customers needs to understand – NOW.

During this segment of the show, listeners call in with questions that might be about business, finance, taxes, insurance, consumer issues, etc, etc.  This week’s segment caught my attention as the second caller was a high school student named Fiona from Sacramento, CA.  Fiona spoke with David Lazarus, a consumer columnist for the LA Times along with the show’s host, Tess Vigeland, about her dissatisfaction with Starbucks.  Seems Fiona has two Starbucks stores within a mile of each other near her house – one sells breakfast sandwiches and one does not – and Fiona wanted to know why.  She called the Starbucks customer service line and got the brush off, tried to contact market research, a non-starter.  Then David Lazarus got into the act and called corporate headquarters to find the answer for her.  Even he was unable to get a cogent response.

Predictably, you can guess what happened next.  If you are a business owner, a corporate executive, a customer service rep, a PR person or in marketing, are you wincing yet??  After discussing the lack of customer service on air for a good 5 minutes, David Lazarus suggested Fiona copy the link from the show once it was available online (Getting Personal) and send it to Starbucks to see if that got their attention – OUCH!  Tess Vigeland invited Fiona back to report the outcome – OUCH, OUCH!  I know we’ve all heard it before, the customer service story that makes news, goes viral and has direct business impact.  This is the stuff of business myth and legends.

Of course, this is nothing new; it’s been around since business began.  It used to be word of mouth (I tell ten friends, they tell ten friends, etc, etc – until the whole town knew about it).  But with the rise of social media and online communities – the volume level of customers is amplified exponentially in today’s virtual environment.  That amplification is explosive, reducing the potential time from consumer-service-hero to customer-service-shame to nanoseconds.  Couple this with customers that are more educated, more empowered and just plain louder and you have service opportunities that must be managed everywhere.

I believe Starbucks can certainly fix this very easily – contacting Fiona and the Marketplace Money folks ASAP with a big, sincere, well-publicized mea culpa is certainly a start.  Working to fix the internal communication problem wouldn’t hurt either.  Most reasonable people understand we all make mistakes. Most reasonable consumers are willing to forgive if someone comes clean and admits they blew it.  But in an age where things move at the speed of light and fickle consumer sentiment can change quickly, brand integrity is built or broken by bits and bytes.  And when there is no strategic plan for managing your online brand or if you try to ignore this venue, you miss huge opportunities and could find yourself in a virtual, yet avoidable, PR nightmare (just ask Tiger Woods).  What would you prefer – a proactive or reactive approach?  Here’s what I say: be the hero, Starbucks, call Fiona and invite her over for a breakfast sandwich – today.

My father got my announcement about our new website the other day – http://www.sophiathinkconsulting.com and he immediately shot back a link
http://www.marketwatch.com/story/join-my-im-bitter-about-twitter-club-2009-07-29?siteid=nwtpm to indicate his opinion of social media. And while I appreciate the blog topic which contends that investing financially in Twitter at this time is risky business, I think my father is missing the point.

Tools aside, the social media industry’s overriding mission – to create mechanisms to build virtual communities of like-minded neighbors has legs. It’s here to stay. Anyone focused solely on the tools (be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or the myriad of other venues) is missing the point. I realize learning to navigate in this new arena can be daunting, but show me one smart executive that isn’t interested in cost-effective ways to connect with their market demographic.

Business leaders spend lots of time and money wracking their brains (and urging their employees) to seek effective methods to determine what their customers are thinking. Social media, for all its faults, provides a bird’s eye view into the thoughts of millions. The challenge for business leaders is pretty clear. They have to figure out how to listen to the participants by sifting through the ocean of data points so they get to the relevant messages. Not an easy task and particularly daunting in a venue that has proved impervious to short cuts….it takes time, consistency and authenticity (an elusive commodity) to cultivate a successful online presence.

Whether Twitter is a success story or goes the way of so many other technologies remains to be seen. But in a world enamored of the next big thing and addicted to spilling its guts with abandon, you can be sure there will be plenty of new options ready to step up and take its place.

I find the new social media world fascinating. But what I find even more fascinating is people’s reaction to it. There are a couple of things that are pretty clear about this new area.

  1. Its redefining the definition of personal (and in many cases, professional) privacy.
  2. There are lots of people leveraging it in today’s world for all sorts of purposes.

While the hardcore productivity and ROI statistics that the business world craves are pretty elusive and the general efficacies are still debatable, you can’t deny the tools are out there and they are definitely making headlines. Take it one step further – as traditional print media is under siege, social media and web news are also delivering the headlines.
For job seekers struggling with an extremely challenging job market, professional branding has become a necessity. And for many people who view technology with suspicion and who have long viewed tools like Face Book and MySpace as kid’s toys, this is a BIG adjustment. LinkedIn has certainly provided more of a grown-up meeting place for today’s professionals, but even this venue doesn’t reduce many people’s main concern – “who is looking at me?” The anonymous nature of this new world is just plain scary for many people.
The allure for businesses, non-profits and political groups is also intriguing. Most of these social media services are free and they have the potential to reach untold millions globally with seemingly minimal effort. That makes these tools attractive to even the biggest techno-phobs. Also, you hear about social media everywhere these days – even National Public Radio (NPR) uses Twitter.
This overwhelming onslaught of options at your finger tips gives you a frantic feeling that you are missing something, that you aren’t part of the mainstream if you aren’t participating. So not using these tools puts you at a disadvantage, right? Ironically, because the ROI statistics aren’t clear, no one is quite sure what that disadvantage means…
How do you balance? In some ways, this is not unlike proper etiquette at the office, professional presence at a business conference or judicious use of any media venue. Using commonsense helps and showing discretion, particularly as you get started, is smart. Choosing the right tools for your purpose is a necessity as it’s almost impossible to use all these tools to their full advantage without a huge time commitment. All these things require “care and feeding”; they aren’t a onetime affair. You can’t set them up and then walk away – you need a plan for maintaining them long term.
Over the next few weeks, I am working in collaboration with a few of my talented, social media-savvy friends to explore this topic from multiple angles. We hope you will join in the discussion as we probe the interesting new world of virtual branding through social media. Enjoy!