Learning How to Network

Let’s start this column with a joke: How can you tell an introverted CIO from an extroverted CIO? The introvert stares at his shoes when you talk to him; the extrovert stares at your shoes. While CIOs are masters of a variety of skills, networking typically isn’t one of them. Most CIOs, introverts at heart, would rather lead a global SAP deployment than work the room. (Or as one CIO who turned me down for an interview confided, he would rather have a root canal.)

Yet, effective networking is often a means toward better business partners, better employees and better jobs. So, like it or not, it is something CIOs have to learn. Rather than look to sales professionals, consultants and other expert schmoozers for tips on managing your Rolodex, I’ve turned to the introverts themselves. These four IT executives offer practical, tactical advice for identifying the most promising networking opportunities and making the most of them.

1. Avoid generic networking events. Dave Clarke, CTO of the American Red Cross (who lent me my opening joke), is president of the Washington Area CTO Roundtable, Inc., a group that meets bi-monthly to discuss technology topics. “This forum is effective for networking because it is not a networking forum,” says Clarke. “Its purpose is technology education, but because the members have common interests, we wind up developing a good network.”

His advice to CIOs in search of something similar: “Look for events that have specific topics of interest as opposed to general networking,” he says. “Once you’ve joined, listen to those members whose opinions you find most interesting. Decide to make contact with only a few, exchange business cards and follow up on that specific topic.” Members of the Roundtable call each other to compare notes on technology topics that are relevant to their businesses, not just to have lunch.

Another tip from Dave: “CIOs might want to take a look at LinkedIN, an online networking tool,” he says. “It is fun to use and because it is a technology tool, technology executives might be more inclined to use it.”

2. Conceptualize and build a networking model. Greg Smith, CIO of the World Wildlife Fund, uses a “networking model” to manage his relationship building activities. The model is a wheel with Greg in the center and nodes that represent friends, IT peers, recruiters, vendors, consultants, employees and mentors around the perimeter.

“The links between the nodes and yourself are built by getting out and speaking to people,” says Smith. “I force myself to attend vendor seminars, to participate in peer to peer councils, and to reach out to my employees and to mentors. I use the model to make sure that I am spreading my networking activities to a variety of groups and contacts.” But don’t cast the net too wide, advises Smith. “At any given event, I may meet only two or three people I like. I’ll add them to my personal Rolodex and follow up with an e-mail to get together in 30 days,” he says. “But if I’m having a conversation with someone I’m not that interested in, I’ll cut it short. Networking is time consuming; you have to control your network.”

3. Focus on vertical networking. Chris Feola, CIO of AskSam Systems and president and CIO of nextPression, a new dashboard and software company, divides networking into two types: horizontal and vertical. “Networking horizontally is simple,” he says. “You join a CIO forum or go to a CIO conference, and you’re going to meet your peers. The good news is you’ll find people who do the same job as you. The bad news is you’ll find people who do the same job as you.”

Much more challenging, and often more valuable, says Feola, is vertical networking, where you network in circles higher up the corporate ladder. “You always hear that you should dress for the job you want. It’s the same with networking,” he says. “If you were the CEO of your company, where would you network? You would join a state business association, an industry forum or a business council. Make sure those groups figure into your networking plans.”

4. Take an MBA short course. For vertical networking, Feola also recommends taking an MBA “short course” at a reputable business school. “A certificate or mid-management course is not nearly as time consuming as an MBA and it allows for some great networking,” he says. “You meet a whole group of people in your community who are on the CEO track, and you are taught by the professors who have taught most of their university’s MBA candidates. Plus, you learn to calculate EBITDA, which always comes in handy.”

5. Engage in collaborative networking. Tom Morgan, CIO of Dobson Communications, finds that “collaborative networking” with professionals outside of his company can be the foundation of strong and enduring professional relationships. “We have a local CIO group in Oklahoma City and we meet on a regular basis,” he says. “A few of us have decided to get teams from each of our companies together to establish best practices in information security. Since we are working to produce a concrete deliverable, our networking has real substance and takes on a much more stable footing.” There are dual benefits to project-based, collaborative networking, says Morgan. “The work you produce as a collaborative team will be useful to you in your current role and will also give you credibility outside of your organization.”

As with sales people and singers, truly great networkers are usually just born that way. But with a little guidance and a lot of perseverance, even the shyest of us can build an effective network. What are some networking ideas, models or forums that have worked for you? Please post your comments and let us know.

Martha Heller is the managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at the Z Resource Group, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. She can be reached at 508-366-5800 x222 or mheller@zrgroup.com.

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