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 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 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 had a conversation with one of my favorite three-year-olds this Saturday. He called me from his parents’ cell phone to ask me if I wanted to Skype with him to talk about my upcoming visit. He wanted to discuss his plans for my stay. Looks like I’m going to be watching a lot of cartoons on YouTube – a particular favorite – Puppy Dog Baseball http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgOOtKLlTMg. We also talked gummy worms, Christmas presents and Thomas the tank engine, but please! While I am a wee bit cheeky here, all of this really did occur and please take note: my little pal just turned three in November, 2009. The Sunday New York Times only made things worse – the article that sealed the deal – Old Fogies by Their 20’s http://bit.ly/old_fogies_20_year_olds. Brad Stone talks about his 2-year-old daughter referring to his kindle as “daddy’s book” – yikes! To everyone out there over the age of ten – welcome to the new normal.

When my contemporaries ask me why I am involved with social media and why I am so excited about the potential, I ask them how they are communicating with their kids. I am pretty blessed to have rich relationships with lots of younger people who text me, poke me on Facebook, invite me into their LinkedIn networks, share YouTube videos, email ecards, tweet event info and send me presents through Farmville. In turn, I talk to them about online identities, appropriate virtual behavior, respecting data privacy and ways to leverage online tools for real-life purposes – like looking for jobs in a tough economy. Much of this happens virtually. We watch out for each other, we know about our relationships, we hear when someone is having a bad day and we are present in each other’s lives. Because of this presence, we influence each other. They help me stay tuned to new trends; new ideas and I strive to provide caring, experienced advice when they hit a rough patch. Innovation with experience – this is one powerful combination.

This engagement has taught me the untapped potential that exists when the social media concept of “community” is used deliberately to maintain productive connections with a diverse group with seemingly little in common. It breaks down barriers that traditionally existed between these parties and allows people to get comfortable enough to say what they really think. The virtual world is the great leveler – young and old don’t matter as much as the ability and willingness to listen to each other with a certain authenticity. Read all the social media books – everyone says it – there has to be something genuine in any interaction or this simply won’t work. You must risk, show vulnerability and be present. Success requires calculated trust and a willingness to maintain objectivity when things don’t go your way. Compromise is a key component to any relationship as is a willingness to share – I have talked about this before, reciprocity is huge with emphasis on the give rather than the get.

Think of the business potential in this concept and you will understand my passion and excitement about the power of engagement. Seth Godin talks about this in his book, Tribes, http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/books.asp. Engaged employees bring more value to their organizations, engaged partners bring more value to collaboration, engaged businesses bring better value to their customers, engaged people create innovations that create our future world.

This is not just conceptual thinking; these are proven business strategies that work. The medium may be new, the methods may seem different, but the concepts are based in time-tested best business practices. These things will happen whether you choose to participate or not – they aren’t coming, they are here. And while older generations may be able to play ostrich for a bit, the smart leaders are getting ahead. They are looking for opportunities to stay in touch and remain vital as this new reality grows up. Don’t show your age by ignoring the possibility. If you are looking for business differentiators today, why not consider engagement as a first step. Don’t decide right now, think about it while I text my three-year-old friend and ask him what color gummy worms he likes best.

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.

I spend a lot of time speaking with business folks about change. Not surprising really given it’s my business and the general state of the world today is forcing everyone to contend with it. But under any circumstances, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, change is a constant. Convincing people to change (and make no mistake…you need buy-in if you wish a change effort to succeed) requires more listening than action. Listening is an under-utilized skill and when you are a change agent, you ignore it at your peril.

No one likes being told what to do. Can’t really blame them there – being ordered about is no fun. But to implement a change you have to motivate people to action, so how do you do it without creating resentment and silent saboteurs? A little deliberate planning and a few common sense steps go a long way.

1. Take time to get to know your audience. Seems like a no-brainer and yet when you don’t have much time it gets easy to skip this step. This is also perceived as such a “squishy” step that it gets pooh-poohed as unnecessary. Be assured, you will be sorry if you don’t. I once watched in awe as a pretty smart guy destroy his professional credibility and a major change effort because he neglected to take his audience’s perspective into account (the whole sad event lasted approximately 10 minutes and undermined months worth of work). Take the time at the beginning to think things through if you want to avoid that sorry fate. The effort and expense you save in the long run with repay your upfront effort exponentially. Do-over’s are costly (for a budget and an organization’s productivity) and change efforts that go badly have ripple effects that compound over time and can get pretty ugly.

2. Don’t under estimate the value of a well thought out strategy plan. I realize better than most that the word strategy is over used and often misunderstood. Also, the majority of people I work with are “doers”…they hate planning, they want to get right to action immediately. It’s the “shoot, ready, aim” theory. Shoot enough stuff and maybe something will hit the target. Mostly it wastes a lot of resources and generally makes the implementation team look pretty foolish. And the funny, sad thing is everyone can see it happening and they do it anyway. Planning doesn’t have to take a long time if you approach it deliberately and the benefits over the long run make it worth the effort.

3. Recruit an advanced guard to carry the message and give you the data you need. I was once involved with a major change effort during a merger. The two companies had diametrically opposed cultures and they hated each other (no exaggeration). It was my mandate to bring the teams closer so they could work together more effectively. I didn’t have a ton of time and while I had a budget, it wasn’t unlimited. I knew I had one shot since these guys were looking for ways to undermine any effort, so I recruited respected members of both groups brought them together for a “strategy summit” and asked for their help. I know this sounds simplistic, but giving them a voice and making them work together got them engaged. I chose carefully so these personalities were inclined to be pretty reasonable people. They went back home carrying a positive message to others. I also consulted them regularly so they gave me meaningful data on our progress and helpful suggestions that I implemented. In return, I made sure they were positively recognized by their managers and corporate executives – it was a productive win-win for everyone.

4. Listen, listen, listen, then listen some more. During any change effort, data is available all around you. Listening is an important skill; if you don’t do it all the time during a change effort you are really missing the boat. Check your ego at the door and be prepared to adjust your plan according to what the data tells you. Play ostrich at your own peril. No matter how bad the data looks, acknowledge it and adjust quickly before things get worse. I once had a standing nightly conference call with a friend and colleague of mine from Australia. We continued talking nightly for a full 6 months during a very difficult Oracle deployment. We gave each other lots and lots of data that helped us adjust according to the reaction of the end users of the system. This approach helped motivate the global finance team to adopt the new system with minimum disruption. That nightly call saved everyone a lot of headaches and the company lots of money. It also made my colleague and me lifelong friends (a very nice side benefit).

5. Don’t try to convert everyone. You don’t need to convert everyone, just a critical mass. Just like UTube videos that go viral, once an idea gains momentum, naysayers get drowned out. And even hard core dissenters get cautiously engaged when everyone is doing it. Also, at a certain point, if the majority has turned the corner, those stubborn hold outs become visible outliers – they start to look unreasonable and their local groups start to apply pressure to push them to conform.

People are never going to enjoy change. It’s uncomfortable and makes everyone’s life harder before benefit is realized. But most reasonable people can tolerate change if they understand it and it makes sense. Listening helps you gauge the level of discomfort and the level of willingness to adopt the changes proposed. If you don’t listen, you are flying blind – not a good formula for success by any measure.

Alright, I’ll admit it, I was never a gamer. I was too busy sailing or running or cooking or biking or doing most anything physical (I have a hard time sitting still). As I got a bit (dare I say it?) older, I was very busy with my job. I was so busy doing things that gaming was never part of my life the way it was for my nephews, Ben and Rich. These guys were hard core World of Warcraft dudes with sexy avatars and a language that appeared rather foreign to me. I watched them play their games with zeal and energy. They wore the t-shirts, bobbed to their i-pods and did battle while they texted and IM’ed each other from across the room. It was an illuminating moment for me when Rich, then 15, complained with great disdain that one of his friends was taking too long to answer him the “old fashioned” way (via email). Gave me pause – I thought to myself, am I that ancient? Can you imagine?

I absolutely adore my nephews – they are really great guys. As an aunt, I have had the privilege of their company long after they stopped hanging with other adults. Aunt-status makes me cooler longer I suppose. It also gives me sway with teenagers reluctant to be seen in public with other adults of a parental nature. My nephews have allowed me to accompany them to concerts (Ben and I spent one night in a mosh pit together), they have followed me up mountains, sailed out on blue water and on and on and on. I have made them eat weird foods, go to museums, travel to new places and try new stuff and in exchange they shared their world with me. But in the end, watching them game was different than participating and it’s the participation that helped them tremendously in so many ways. As a result, their relationship with computers and other technical gadgets, and their communication channels were much, much different – much more intimate and faster-paced – than mine.

You may be wondering why the confession, what does this have to do with collaboration and social media. And while I am not advocating for “gaming” vs. physical exercise per se (I think you need both for a healthy life), I see the clear fluency my nephews have acquired in the virtual space and I am glad for them. I’ve always loved technology. Computers have made my life easier and the potential business uses have always appealed to me. But much of my orientation has been business-based and more clinical. There was a clear separation between my business dealings and my personal stuff, an unspoken demarcation line between the two. That was my orientation and that’s where I played. And while I was fascinated with the cool new tools, I was still more comfortable “listening” on Twitter and Facebook. The privacy/transparency thing freaked me out a bit. It seemed too personal.

And I don’t think I’m unique among the 40+ set. I talk to friends, colleagues and business people and they struggle with the same concerns. Leaving a digital trace is associated with visibility aka vulnerability to unseen (naturally untrusted) sources. (What do you mean @DaronBabin is following me, who the heck is that guy???) They also associate these tools with the trivial because they can’t decipher the code or see the immediate value. What a nimble user sees as opportunity, an unschooled observer sees as a waste of time.

LinkedIn seems to be the exception for this group. Driven by high unemployment, a job-less recovery and the radical changes in the employment process, membership has grown exponentially (http://www.crunchbase.com/company/linkedin). LinkedIn, in financial trouble in 2007, is now a highly profitable service providing a vital, “bridge” to people of a “certain age”. The very formal, business-like nature of the tool provides a bit of a security blanket for a huge number of newbies to the social networking space. Of course, you can’t convert everyone. Even in this buttoned-up arena there are whole pools of people who still can’t make the leap; who deny invitations, close down their networks and refuse to play.

Ironically, as conservative as it is, in my view, LinkedIn is actually performing a more interesting function. It brings the business generations together and allows for a broader, more diverse conversation. It’s an unlikely leveler that seems more professional than Twitter. Even as younger, savvier social media folks pooh pooh LinkedIn, the access to business contacts is alluring and serious social media practitioners are smart to establish a presence. What’s the down side? And just as I have taught my nephews the importance of a good business handshake and how to be polite in public, I have also counseled them on the need to establish a professional digital footprint to prepare them for the work world they will join in the near future. We’ll be setting up their LinkedIn profiles very soon as I continue to chat with them on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, we still climb mountains and keep each other posted on the latest coolest trends and because I am always striving to maintain my “cool” aunt status, I am always willing to learn!