Choosing the Means to an End: How You Connect
First and foremost, you should decide why and what and with whom you want to network. In making those choices, you need to distinguish yourself from the crowd and know exactly what makes you, you — unique and different.
Then you need to select the way of networking that you prefer the most. You can reach out and touch folks through emails, phone calls, and even actual postal mail, or it could be in person, whether that’s one-on-one or in groups, fundraising events, charity events, volunteering experiences, shows and theater performances, marathons, challenges.
Let’s first look at networking events. Attending conferences, roundtable events, happy hours, and posting in LinkedIn Groups are all great ways of connecting with those with whom you want to connect. If you cannot find an event that feels compelling to you, then you can always consider organizing an event yourself. The benefit of organizing is actually two-fold: You get the benefit of attending the event you organized and fostering those connections, with the added benefit of making connections during the organizational process.
You might think of strategies for getting in touch with people in person via clubs, volunteer activities, mail and more. But the digital world offers us even better and faster options: email, social media and more. Social media certainly isn’t a replacement for face-to-face networking. There’s still nothing like connecting in person, but that’s not always possible, so social media can be a helpful adjunct. Let’s talk about how you can use it effectively.
If you want to connect with a busier, powerful person and if you don’t have any mutual friends who can make an introduction, it might be hard to get past the gatekeepers. But social media is one good way to do it since most senior professionals, except perhaps the CEOs of large corporations, handle their own social media. If you start commenting on the updates they share on LinkedIn or retweeting their posts on Twitter, they’ll likely notice. Of course, you don’t want to do it every day and look like a stalker, but an insightful comment or a retweet every week or two will likely get you on their radar in a positive way. It’ll also lay the groundwork for a good response once you meet them in person. Whatever means of approach you choose, follow these three tests to make sure that you pass with ‘A’ marks:
The ‘Why Me’ Test
Test number one, why me? Now what does that mean? I’ll play the role of the executive for a moment. Why are you asking me for my time? Why specifically me? Am I the one individual in the entire world who is most appropriate for this meeting, or could some other leader take this meeting? I coached the chief marketing officer of a global high-tech firm. He said that in these situations he has a motto: If someone else can take the meeting, someone else can take the meeting. That’s the “why me” test. It will help you focus on the best possible candidate to meet with you.
The ‘Easy for Me’ Test
Test number two, easy for me. You want to make it as easy as possible for executives to say yes to the meeting. Remember, they have insane demands on their time, and there are always a thousand good reasons for them to say no to requests like this. Make the meeting short and convenient for them. Don’t ask them to prepare, and let them know you’ll adapt to their schedule. The easiest answer for them to your meeting request is no, so make it as easy as possible for them to say yes.
The ‘Remarkable to Me’ Test
Test number three, remarkable to me. There may be a thousand or more people who are trying to get an executive’s time. You don’t want to blend into that crowd. If you blend, you’re bland and you’re done. Give them a chance to pick you out of the crowd. Include something specific and attention-getting about your background, culture, passions, and struggles, something that marks you in a positive way as both remarkable and memorable as the unique individual you are, on an inspiring path forward.
AFTER THE EVENT
People get busy right after a networking event, so take the lead to start building relationships. Share your contact information and pitch deck with others (I would even do it as a video) and ask for theirs.
Put all your contacts into a database. Group them. Maybe even start sending email newsletters to them. I think it should already be clear that birthday cards are a given – a simple gesture that stays forever in people’s minds.
The next step is to think about how your interests and goals align with those of people you meet and how that can help you forge meaningful working relationships. Northwestern University’s Brian Uzzi calls this the shared activities principle. “Potent networks are not forged through casual interactions but through relatively high-stakes activities that connect you with diverse others,” he explains. (See “How to Build Your Network,” HBR, December 2005.) Numerous studies in social psychology have demonstrated that people establish the most collaborative and longest-lasting connections when they work together on tasks that require one another’s contributions.
Consider the approach taken by Claude Grunitzky, a serial entrepreneur in the media industries, when he set out to meet Jefferson Hack, founder of Dazed & Confused, an underground British style and music magazine. As described in a Harvard Business School case study, Grunitzky — then 22 and preparing to found his first business, an urban hip-hop magazine in London — learned everything he could about Hack. “I read every one of his magazines, noticed what he was writing about, and what kinds of bands he reviewed,” Grunitzky recalled. “I did so much of this I felt I could almost understand his personality before we met.” Armed with that knowledge and convinced that he and Hack had similar worldviews and aspirations, Grunitzky felt much more comfortable approaching the industry elder.
When your networking is driven by substantive, shared interests that you’ve identified through serious research, it will feel more authentic and meaningful and is more likely to lead to relationships that have those qualities too.