I was recently reflecting on winning the lottery. When I say reflecting I really mean fantasizing. It’s a daydream that I have quite often as many Americans do. When they think about winning, most people talk about the things that they would buy. That’s not really me. I tend to think about things like investment returns, tax liabilities and even a personal security plan. For me, my reflections include all the other stuff that most people don’t put much thought into when they dream of hitting the jackpot.
This particular morning I was running through the numbers of what it would take to be completely financially independent. This is also something I do quite often as part of my thoughts on investing my fantasy winnings. My daydreaming got me thinking, as it always does, about the changes in living a life where I didn’t have to work. Where most people would think about all the wonderful pursuits they would use to fill their day I was thinking something completely different. I was lamenting the potential loss of my network. I think this loss is unique to me in that the vast majority of my creative after work efforts vis-à-vis my blog and podcast are all heavily inspired by my professional network, a group that that I mostly engage with at my day job.
Then as a typical for me my mind wandered in a different direction. I started thinking about the professional networks of others. Specifically I was thinking about someone I had met on the very low end of the socioeconomic scale when I was on temporary assignment at a different office. She has no skills and a family to support. I needed some labor of the type that she was accustomed to providing in her day job. We struck a deal. We spent the majority of a day working together and we discussed all manner of subjects because, well, I don’t know how to spend the day with somebody and not discuss all manner of subjects. The conversation led to other opportunities where I think we may be able to interface professionally. That’s when it hit me. Our professional networks had overlapped. This is something that would not have happened if I was independently wealthy or she was independently wealthy. We would mostly stay around our own social circles. The next logical progression in my mental musings was the contemplation of how would we be able to interface if neither one of us were working at that particular place at that particular time?
You would think that this wouldn’t be a huge problem. We live in a golden age of digital networking. There is Facebook, LinkedIn and every other manner of limitless numbers of online communities. There are armies of programmers and deep thinkers trying to come up with better ways to use these digital platforms to create stronger connections among their respective members. To some degree it’s working but all of this effort, millions of man-hours worth, doesn’t work nearly as well as six months of walking into a building and saying good morning to somebody and taking a few minutes each week to chat with them.
Is it possible to eliminate face-to-face networking?
One of the things to remember is that human beings are hardwired to interface with other human beings face to face. It’s oft cited that a huge percentage of communication is nonverbal. Some studies say it is as much as 90% or more. The communication can be through obvious things like smiles and frowns as well as less clear methods like tone of voice and inflection. There is also a bunch little imperceptible things. We’re not consciously aware of them but we notice and react to things like the twitch of a cheek or the slight coloration of the skin. It could be something as nuanced as a barely moving eyebrow.
You could try and make the argument that modern video technology can transmit this type of information. It’s my experience that even the best systems are nowhere near that level of effectiveness. Social media platforms like Facebook Chat and FaceTime by Apple simply don’t have the ability to transmit all of that information. Even the higher-end systems such as good Skype setups or even professional level telepresence setups are limited in many ways. They may be designed specifically to transmit much more, but admittedly no where near all, of this nonverbal information, but they’re prohibitive cost keeps this type of thing from being adopted by the mass population. The ultimate takeaway is that these systems are subpar even in the best case scenario. They absolutely work better than email but they are not a complete replacement for face-to-face networking so that leads us to the conclusion that in-person networking is still in a class of its own.
Where face-to-face networking does and doesn’t work.
One of the things that we have in nearly every professional environment are gatherings. They take the form of conferences or sales meetings and all manner of other events designed at attracting a large number of people with a common interest. These events universally include a ‘networking’ period of some sort or other. The reality is that very few people use these times to create new connections. Mostly it’s spent reconnecting with people you already know. They are quite useful if getting an existing contact up to speed on the latest and greatest in your professional world is the goal. They are borderline useless when it comes to creating new connections. Chalk this up to human nature. It’s just not in most people’s comfort zone to go knock on the strange door or walk up to a strange person and introduce yourself even in situations specifically created for that type of interaction. As an aside, this is why good cold calling sales people are so hard to find. The connections which are reengaged at these events are generally from different periods of time where the professionals had worked together.
Another professional networking option is what is now known as team building. Admittedly you have to be connected to the team in some way to get into this type of event. It’s great for internal networking and can even expand your network if the team rotates. A personal example from the earlier part of my career was the after hours events from my telecom job. Regularly getting together for for drinks was a staple of any of our trips. The connections we built were very strong, which can be surprising considering how we were all located in different parts of the country and in many cases worked for different companies. Just for clarity, it wasn’t the drinking nor was it the formal training during the day. Successful networking outcomes came from the regularity of it, the drinking and connecting / reconnecting was just part of the job. We didn’t just drink, we learned how to communicate and overtime got better at learning more and more about the person and the things they did. Many of these things could be mutually beneficial in the different aspects of our respective jobs. It didn’t matter if they were a manufacturer we were repping or a colleague. Just to reiterate, forcing this doesn’t work. Some companies try developing artificial bonds via formal networking and/or team building. What made it so effective at the rep group was that we had to do it regularly, nearly every other month and that the group we networked with expanded over time.
The only thing I’ve seen that comes close via a formal process is Business Network International groups, usually referred to just as BNI. What makes BNI so strong is the fact that it’s a regular part of the routine for the individual members and there is no overlap with the member types at each club. There is only one accountant allowed in any group, same for realtor, etc.. This isn’t the ideal solution for learning best practices in a specific industry but it’s great for expanding outside of your industry circle. In the most successful implementations there is a social element, usually food. It’s the same reason why rotary’s and other related civic groups are good places to network. The core problem with both Rotary Clubs and BNI is that they tend to be static in their membership. To have a truly strong personal network creation organization there needs to be some sort of regular cycling of ocasional new members.
No matter if you are a professional who puts together events that includes networking, or a professional who wants to attend the networking events and do it effectively, there are some best practices to follow to make the networking event experience effective.
It can’t be a large group. If the group is too large, like the kinds you run into at conference networking events, there is a tendency to only engage with the familiar. Scanning these rooms you will simply see a large group of individual little cliques. This is human nature as we all stick to our little group of friends. Unless you have some sort of aggressive VP forcing everyone to different tables at something like a banquet then it’s a complete waste of time if the purpose was networking. Even in the case where a team purposefully splits up to make new contacts, in my experience they generally wind up at tables where people are already in a little clique of their own.
It has to have consistent interactions and be part of the process of what you do. Interfacing with the group with regularity creates enough of the familiarity where you don’t have to go through the introductory stuff every single time you get together. When I say regularity I find that once a year is not regular enough. A weekly group meeting can create a networking environment that’s too familiar. You see this with chamber of commerce gatherings in small towns. They tend to be more of a social group than a business group. It seems somewhere between once a week and once a year is the sweet spot. Bi-monthly to Quarterly gatherings has always worked best in my opinion.
It has to be over time. Built into this idea of regular networking gatherings multiple times a year is consistency over time. This is a really important element not to be understated. The human animal needs reinforcement through repetition and time to reflect. Direct mail companies know it takes several impressions to get someone to finally open an envelope and read the letter. Getting people to open up more is a somewhat aligned behavior pattern when networking. Regular repetition overtime almost always builds familiarity and proficiency with nearly everything in the human experience and networking is no different.
I think that a random element is important for good networking. This is easy to accomplish if the group changes with some regularity like a sales group in which different vendors connect with regularity. Then it works great. If it’s always the same people then they tend to do the same things. If it’s all random then it becomes an ad-hoc group that is more focused on things other than networking. The ideal for networking is a group with stability inclusive of just a bit of random. Rotating members, new vendors or or some other changing human element will always interject newness and reenergize the connecting element inherent in any good networking event.
It has to include connectors / natural networkers. You need someone who is a problem solver. If you happen to have gatherings of groups who are not problem solvers by nature, who are accountants or bureaucrats then the networking is really more bitching. Admittedly complaining can be the first step to problem solving, but you can also get stuck in this mode if there isn’t someone who naturally tends to connect potential solutions to the problem. Networking always works best if there is more than one of these natural problem solvers as they can change the tone of the whole group.
I think having one or more natural problem solvers leads into the most important thing: Activity. Networking only works when there are goals, problems, challenges, i.e. a need. Exploring the solutions with others around you makes for great networking environments. Getting together just because you all do the same thing or work in the same industry doesn’t help for squat unless it’s understood that everyone is bringing their problems to the table. Even then it has to be understood that activity and solutions are needed.
I had a problem. I have zero in common with the person who I had help me out other than that she could be the solution to my problem. I am glad I had work forcing me to interface with her. I’m am also glad I made it a point to say good morning to her every day and to get to know her a bit over time. It took a while before we were able to connect her strengths to my needs in a way that benefited us both. I’m going to be leaving that office soon, but I I don’t intend to stop interfacing with her or trying to connect more strongly with others I may meet in my professional life. Networking, problem solving, and engaging with others is one of the reasons why I could never see myself quitting work entirely even if I did win the lottery. I say this because personally connecting with other humans in a way that helps everyone can be a rush bigger than you get from any jackpot!