In this week's column, Danny R. Faught discusses some techniques on how to beef up your networking game. He compares successful to not-so-great tactics for meeting people who can help us. He also guides us in the ways of maintaining relationships. His bottom line: the focus should always be on creating meaningful connections. Networking shouldn't just be about meeting people, but about learning how to wisely judge their value as well.
"Make new friends, but keep the old,
One is silver and the other gold."
Make New Friends--Girl Scout Friendship Song®
Somewhere I picked up the notion that I need to meet strangers, especially people who don't work in the same field that I do, because these people might someday run across someone who needs exactly what I have to offer. I no longer believe that this is an effective way to do professional networking. I'd like to offer a different angle on networking that I feel works much better.
Why doesn't it work?
There are stacks of precariously piled business cards on my desk. Grabbing a few, I find someone who works at a flooring company, a real estate agent, a representative of an office furniture company, and a sales associate for a broadcast services company, whatever that is. I got these cards at various networking events, and there are numerous opportunities to collect hundreds more.
Networking is a reciprocal activity. I'm supposed to keep an eye out for people who need flooring, real estate, office furniture, and broadcast services, if I can ever figure out what that is. In return, all of the people I exchanged business cards with will watch for someone who needs a software tester. Right? Fat chance.
Even if I did find good contacts for these people, why would they be my first choice in giving a referral? I only talked to them for a few minutes, and I really don't know if their company is good at what it does. I really don't know any more about these people's companies than I could learn from the Yellow Pages or their Web site.
What are the odds that any of them will discover a need for software testing services, remember that I once told them that's what I do, and then be able to find my contact information? Very slim.
If I meet someone whom I have nothing meaningful in common with, any benefit we can offer each other has to happen right on the spot. If neither of us has anything specific we can do right away to help each other, there isn't any reason to swap business cards at all.
Picture your network mapped out in concentric circles with you in the center. Outside the outermost circle are people you've never met, and one ring in are the people you've met but have no meaningful connection with. For everyone further inside, you have some sort of meaningful connection. Your most significant relationships-such as your spouse, best friends, and close family-are in the innermost circle.
Moving someone closer to the center is similar to the process of building brand-awareness for a new product-it takes multiple impressions for someone to really become aware of a brand, just as it takes multiple interactions to further your relationship with someone. Relationships are best formed when you're acting on genuine needs that one of you have rather than trying to force it. Building a strong relationship may take a long time, but it's worth the wait.
I try to meet new people that I'm likely to already have some sort of connection with. Testing conferences are much more fruitful for me than Chamber of Commerce meetings. I can connect with most of the people at the conference because of our shared interested in testing, though the Chamber meetings have the advantage of being local, which is important in some circumstances. So I established a local networking group for software testers that I can tap when I'm looking for local work. In a similar way, I tap other networking opportunities both in person and online that are likely to give me exposure to people I already have something in common with.
Networking can be a part of your everyday life, even when you're not seeking out a connection.
A new restaurant opened up down the street from me. I ate there once and thought it was mediocre. Then I met the owner at a local expo for entrepreneurs. I shared my thoughts about my experience and he gave me coupons for free food. We shared a meaningful interaction. I later met him at a Chamber event and talked to him further. I'm rooting for him now, hoping that his business succeeds. Our relationship was helped by our multiple interactions over time from which we've both benefited. A recent email newsletter from him prompted me to eat there again, and while I was there, he invited me to a networking luncheon he was hosting. I met several local business owners at the luncheon, including some I had met before, and I was able to further my relationships with them.
Another example is what led to the software project I'm working on now. A couple of years ago, I discovered that a fellow church member had been a software tester before. About six months ago, we started talking seriously about what I could do for the company where he is employed. About three weeks ago, he overheard a conversation I was having at church and learned that I was available to take on a new client. I've been doing work for his company for about two weeks now.
You should keep adding new people to your network. But the people whom you've already cultivated relationships with are really gold, as the song goes.