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.

I read a disturbing article in the New York Times this weekend (http://nyti.ms/chinajustice) regarding the use of social networking to exact justice (or revenge?) on individuals. NPR’s On The Media also picked up the story (http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/03/05/04). Dubbed “human-flesh search engines” or “renrou sousuo yinqing”, these tools of vigilante justice are tacitly overlooked, perhaps even encouraged, by the Chinese government and, in my mind, are an indicator of the worst possibilities for social networking in the future.

I suppose it was inevitable. Given the power of community and the sheer size of the social networking user base, bad things were bound to happen. But when a power vacuum exits, something always shifts to fill it. Not surprising, there is a growing tension between naturally collaborative social media users and governmental authorities that are responsible for providing a legal framework for public protection. An overwhelming conundrum, how to “manage” this new world? In the absence of a clear operating framework, individual governments (for good and for ill) are making it up as they go along.

In the US, freedom of speech trumps privacy concerns at least for the moment. Our system allows disparate opinions to exist (no matter how abhorrent) as part of our constitutional right to free speech. The data privacy conscious EU is taking a different decision. The Italian government took a stand this Feb when they convicted 3 Google executives (http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/02/google-executive-convicted-in-italy-for-downs-video/). The German government is also examining the issue (http://lawpundit.blogspot.com/2010/03/paranoid-on-privacy-legitimate-law.html). Meanwhile, the founders of Google have an equally compelling position: the Italian verdict “poses a crucial question for the freedom on which the internet is built.” Who’s right?

One can argue that the Twitter coverage of the Iran protests last summer is a clear indicator of the power of the medium. (The Iranian government obviously thought so since they are working hard to keep their citizens under wraps.) And there is a compelling case for the good deeds accomplished through social networking for Haiti and Chile in the wake of the recent earthquakes. But uploading videos showing children bullying another child is also powerful – powerful and just plain evil. How do we balance these opposing forces in this new world?

As all of us develop active online profiles, we become more visible in a very specific and personal way. Our cell phones track our physical locations, what we buy creates personal consumer data, our socializing reveals who we know. What we read, where we recreate, what we watch, to whom we communicate, how we do business, what games we play, the list goes on and on and on. And no one really knows who owns this data. Now I am not paranoid by nature….but as someone committed to this online economy, I am clear that my choice creates risk for me. And if the untested nature of the social media “economy” gives me hope and opens possibilities, human-flesh search engines definitely give me the willies.

I attended a fascinating event in Foxboro, MA last week called the Inbound Marketing Summit. Hosted by a company called New Marketing Labs (http://newmarketinglabs.com/), a self-professed team of new media “evangelists” who are nimble, proficient users, this group hosts events around the country to educate business people on effective ways to use social media for profit.

Talk about content overload –70+ presenters, plus the vendor displays, plus the after hour get-togethers and the regular networking….turn on the fire hose and brace yourself….I confess, by the end I was really, really tired.

But this stuff is really exciting and it makes me pretty motivated to share. I broke it out into a few initial thoughts as I start to digest this mountain of data.
1. Here’s a venue that rewards business people who have the ability to build relationships of substance. There’s a lot of talk about” authenticity” here…the intangible, unjaded quality that indicates you are really interested in someone, that the relationship is fundamental and a positive business outcome is a bi-product of the trust that exists between us. It is the people who have this quality who should own and manage your social media efforts for your company, people who embody your brand and will present a genuinely caring face to your customer. Case in point – Paula Berg from Southwest Airlines and Jenny Cisney from Kodak have become the social media “face” for their brands – they are synonymous with a commitment to customer service that connects with their clientele on a deeply emotional level and builds a great deal of brand loyalty. You may not always feel good about a corporation, but Paula and Jenny are easy to trust because they are really nice people.
2. Building your personal brand so people trust you is worth a lot in social media. It’s really nothing new – people who trust you, listen to you. In this venue, personal recommendations and personal endorsements work the same way; however, everything here is on steroids – you can create celebrity status here and that translates to ”trusted” endorsement power connected to a potentially global audience . By creating a trusted “brand” presence you earn currency that you can use to move opinion, promote awareness, garner feedback, sell stuff; the possibilities are pretty compelling. Downside, trust takes lots of time and effort to build and is a very fragile thing to maintain (and must be done so with a great deal of vigilance). This is not a place to be entered into lightly…you definitely don’t want to be “that guy/gal” that everyone talks about for the wrong reasons. If you get a bad reputation by betraying trust, you’re screwed.
3. While the old rules are still relevant, you need to adjust them to fit the new context. A wise person once told me that nothing learned is ever wasted as long as you understand and adjust to suit the current context. Same thing with social media. Respecting people, acting with integrity, treating people well, having high standards, delivering quality – it all still applies, but now apply it to an anonymous, global audience with LOTS of opinions. This means your actions are always potentially on view – so applying these values, these tenets authentically all the time has to be who you are and how you operate naturally because someone will eventually catch you if you aren’t….
4. Traditional crisis management doesn’t work in this venue; you must have an established presence to play effectively. Dissuade yourself of the notion that you can ignore this whole thing until it goes away. It’s not going away. While social media is still young and will, no doubt, transform itself as it matures, there are too many compelling business reasons to stay out of the game If you are in business today and you want to increase your chances of viability in the future, you would be foolish not to learn about this now. If you do nothing more than listen and learn how things work, you are already ahead of your competition sitting on the sidelines. Also, if you are caught in a bad reputational slam, you can’t use this medium for instant spin. If you aren’t out there already and you try to leverage this platform for crisis control, you will come off looking foolish and you could make things even worse.
5. Trying to “game” the system? Watch out. This is a venue that requires consistent honesty. Watch yourself and stay humble, as even capable practitioners can have missteps. Case in point, Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, a savvy proponent of social media, took a hit when it leaked he tried to drive down the stock price of his smaller rival Wild Oats by leaving unflattering pseudononymous comments on online investor forums. This is the stuff of legends and Web 2.0 is pretty unforgiving – once it’s out there it never goes away.
6. The tools really don’t matter. Social media encompasses lots of different tools, but is really more about a new cultural framework for doing business. This medium has its own social norms, driven by an internet savvy generation that is quite comfortable with online sharing and extended privacy boundaries. While many of the old rules of social etiquette still apply and playing respectfully may eventually get you invited to the party, you still need to learn how to interact productively in this new world. Like any system, it has levers and drivers that can be utilized to create influence and as with all things, it takes patience and practice to get good at it. But learning about this framework is fascinating stuff and I for one, am ready to dive in and get to know it better.

If you are struggling with the whole social media trend, you aren’t alone, but you might be dating yourself. While many people I talk to lament the passing of “old” ways of communicating (letter writing, the telephone call), others eat, breathe and speak all things virtual. For me, there is always a middle ground. Call me pragmatic or call me crazy, but I believe that business people (with very few exceptions) who wish to maintain their professional vitality long term need to keep an eye on social media. These on-line focus groups, opinion drivers, global connectors present amazing opportunities for creating fascinating networks that level the playing field for small and mid-size companies who don’t have the budget resources of larger corporations. Even large corporations seeking to speed up innovation can avoid the damages of “group-think” by utilizing a larger pool of talent (inside and outside their companies) to spur creativity and maintain their competitive edge.

The tricky challenge – some of the rules in this new space are pretty different than the current business protocol – you have to share things to get things. Transparency is a dirty word in business – it’s scary. With social media, privacy is re-defined and authenticity, collaboration, knowledge sharing are valued attributes – all reasons for business traditionalists to run for the hills and seek cover. But ironically, so much of this new place is built on age-old principles. Integrity is still integrity and betrayal is still betrayal even if it is virtual. In the end, it’s all about relationships. While it may have been professional organizations, rotary, a sporting event, a drink after work or lots and lots of lunches (all still in existence by the way), good networking has always kept business running. The social media space is no different. It’s still all about building meaningful connections with each other, but now you might choose to connect with someone who lives half way around the globe.

For some this new world seems less personal. I think it simply requires a bit of creativity and a sincere desire to connect. And there are still lots of opportunities to meet people and look them in the eye if that’s your choice. Of course, if you have trouble making friends face-to-face, if physical events intimidate you, you may find it less stressful to create a network virtually; less face time might be a good thing. But don’t be fooled, just because you choose to network virtually doesn’t mean it’s any less work.

Building relationship has always been a challenge – they require time and once they are established, proper care and feeding. They also work best when you maintain an open mind. Virtual networking is no different than traditional networking. You can’t neglect a relationship or treat someone poorly and expect things to flourish. It’s pretty hard to succeed all by yourself. But this is no different than it’s ever been; business is more productive if you have a good resource network. Social media simply offers you a larger talent pool. Or you could avoid the whole social media thing, but be prepared, someone younger than you will probably roll their eyes at you if you do.