Networking is not what most people think it is. It’s not a contest for the largest Rolodex. Effective networking is more akin to friends helping friends make new friends.
Last week I gave a presentation at a leadership seminar sponsored by the IT Executives Accountability Group. The purpose of this organization is to create small groups of peer executives who can mentor each other, act as sounding boards for ideas and concerns, and provide real-world connectedness in an increasingly virtual business world. Because the members of this organization are committed to forging bonds that they hope will last their entire careers, they understand the importance of earned trust and mutual support.
Earned trust and mutual support distinguish what I refer to as a “neo-Rolodex networker” (e.g. someone with a long list of superficial contacts in email or on LinkedIn) and a truly effective networker.
Prior to email, a large Rolodex was the sign of a well-connected person. Back then, getting to know people took time, effort and a personal touch: face-to-face meetings, phone calls and hand-written letters. Those connections were so vital that some corporate heads of sales and marketing organizations negotiated ownership of their Rolodexes in their employment contracts.
Today, building a very large list of contacts is exceedingly simple with email and social networking systems. The problem is that many executives try to equate their electronic “neo-rolodex” of names with successful networking. They think the bigger the list, the better. However, almost any sales leader will tell you that large lists of easily gathered contacts are simply “prospects” and that it is only through building a relationship with each contact, one at a time, that you can turn them into clients. The old Rolodex was valuable because of the time and care the owner put into building and cultivating the individual relationships those cards represented.
So if an effective network is not a large list of contacts, what is it?
The IT Executives Accountability Group is on the right track in building on the power of relationships. You build relationships through communication and earn trust by following through on commitments and holding confidences. But the core of an effective network is extending the power of your relationships into what the Chinese refer to as “gu?nxě” (can someone help with a pronunciation for this), which translates to “networks of mutual support.” That is, when you offer assistance to others without demanding them to reciprocate, you create an intrinsic bond with the recipient of your favor, and that bond builds a desire by the recipient to help you and others as well. Gu?nxě is so central to Chinese culture that the standard acceptance response to an apology is “meiyou gu?nxě,” which roughly means “doesn’t have gu?nxě (implications)”.
Interestingly, the Chinese also refer to gu?nxě as the larger network of networks, all connected together in support of one another. It’s similar to the Russian “blat”, the Middle Eastern “wasta”, and the more recent American concept of “pay it forward,” whereby the recipient of a good deed repays the a favor by assisting someone other than the original giver. It is this unanticipated reciprocity that is the strength of an effective network: As you help others, you build your network, and those who help you may not be the same ones you have helped.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius described this benefit in a proverb: “Is it not a great joy to have friends coming from afar?”
So an effective leader builds and relies on an effective network, which is focused more on relationships than on organization or structure.
Which brings us all the way back to effective networking being like friends helping friends. When meeting new people, whether on a Web 2.0 online interface, on LinkedIn, at work or at a technology conference, you will build a more effective network if you spend time with each person and start to build relationships with them than if you simply gather tons of business cards. The next step is to follow-up with each new person you meet to thank them for spending time with you and to cement your nascent relationship by referring your new contact to an article, website or lead related to your initial conversation. As you continue to share helpful information back and forth, you build that bond of gu?nxě that is the strength of your effective and growing network.
Thank you again for all of your comments and ideas!