This is the 2nd installment (of three) in my networking mini-series. The first featured Connie Benson.
This interview features Gen Y Rockstar, Jeff Widman. I am very thankful I became acquainted with Jeff during our internship with Seth Godin. Jeff was instrumental in helping me come up with these questions, scenarios, etc. and he’s been instrumental in helping me grow as a networker. What follows is one of the most valuable posts I’ve ever put on this blog. If you truly want to become a more valuable networker, read it in its entirety. Utilize the comments section to direct questions to Jeff.
And Jeff, it is not lost on me that I owe you one or two. Thanks for the help putting this mini-series together.
1.) How did you become a great networker? What motivates you to network? Why should anyone/everyone strive to connect in a similar fashion?
Networking will benefit your career tremendously—especially over the long-term. As a result of networking, I have multiple job offers to work anywhere in the world, a great set of mentors and advisors, and access to a veritable who’s who of Silicon Valley (my current industry). However, it’s about helping others—not about you.
Recently, I went to a typical “networking event” and listened as people evaluated each other with the question “what do you do?” It felt revolting. Sure, I write for the world’s #2 blog, I know some movers and shakers, and my friends regularly ask me for networking advice.But networking success is not about saying “hi” to tons of people. It’s about building real relationships with people you genuinely care for, and then looking to help them solve their problems.It is intrinsically rewarding to connect people who can help each other. After a few times playing accidental match-maker, I began purposefully doing this. When I made that choice—that’s when I became a networker.
If you think, “Great—I’m all about helping others, especially because that will help me.” Well, you just don’t get it.
2.) Networking is second-nature for you. Can you explain why this is so. What skills do you possess (or have developed) that aid you in the process?
Great networkers combine their desire to help people with the skill of communicating to others how they might help each other. If you don’t want to help people, you’ll never see the opportunity.
For example, last night my friend Eric IM’d me to vent his frustrations with trying to edit a podcast. Just a few hours earlier, my friend Brian had finished editing the first episode of a new podcast we’re launching. Even though Eric wasn’t looking for a sound engineer, I was pretty sure Brian could help Eric. Two minutes later, I was introducing Brian to Eric via Skype. Later I received enthusiastic thank-you’s from both of them.
Let’s look at what happened:
- 1) I actively desire to connect people. I wasn’t merely chatting with Eric, I was looking to help him. Desire leads to awareness.
2) I keep touch with my network—I knew Brian was looking for additional free-lance work.
In his great post on making introductions, Auren Hoffman points out that a successful introduction succeeds when both parties are excited to meet each other. As the match-maker, I’m the one responsible for discerning whether Brian has the competence to help Eric. This means I must listen to Eric to clearly understand his problem.
Basic networking skills: Listen to others, understand their problems, desire to help them, brainstorm alternative solutions, take time to execute. The last is particularly important—how many times has someone offered to help, then never got around to it?
3.) My favorite thing is that you provide immense value to others within your network. How do you achieve this? Why is it important?
Great networkers don’t start with a huge network. (There’s only so many people you can build real relationships with.) Instead, they discern the unspoken needs of their network. Their network is more selective towards talented people who work hard. They accurately assess the abilities of their network. And then great networkers catalyze connections across their network.
Ryan Holiday put it best when he said “Find canvases for other people to paint on.” The majority of introductions I make are people who never knew the other person existed. But I see the value each can provide to the other, so I introduce them. It takes time. And it’s never repaid in the short-run.
It’s an exponential effect though. Over time, my network trusts me with access to their network. And suddenly I solve your problems by connecting you to a friend who probably has a friend who can help you.
(One caveat: I had an epic season of failure where I introduced people just to introduce them. People worth introducing are generally busy—already they’re wishing they could spend more time with family and friends. So if you’re going to suggest one more person for them to connect with, be sure it’s someone who can add value. Hat tip to Ramit Sethi, who tactfully pointed this out to me.)
4.) What kind of tactical filtering techniques do you employ?
I wrote a whole post on creating useful filters, rather than useless speed bumps.
For example: “Scenario: Someone cold e-mails you asking for coffee. You’re always fairly busy. What do you do?”
Be honest. Send them a quick e-mail saying “Hey, I don’t have a lot of time, but I would like to connect with you. So I don’t waste your time either, can you e-mail me a link to your bio (or LinkedIn profile), and three topics you’re interested in talking about?”
I look more at how they tell their story than what they’ve accomplished. Boring life told in an interesting way is worthwhile. Their questions will show why they want to meet with me. I try and take as many of these as possible—so many people have given to me that I want to pass it on.
“Scenario: You’re at a conference, and someone hands you their business card after an interesting conversation. Do you make any notes to identify them, and hat kind of follow-up will you do?”
First question: was it really an interesting conversation? So often, when people find I’m a blogger, they immediately give me their card. They want press coverage, without a thought to how they can solve my audience’s problems (interesting news that highlights greater trends in enterprise software.) I’m not interesting in having those people in my trusted network—they probably won’t look out for my network’s problems.
Otherwise, if it was interesting, then I’ll certainly make a few notes, and add them on LinkedIn. Generally I’ll send an e-mail with two-three links and a potential person in my network they should meet.
The scale on this is abominably low. At a conference, I consider it far more successful if I built two-three really solid connections rather than collected thirty business cards.
5.) In terms of practical contact management, how do you keep track of everyone’s contact information?
My e-mail address book is the epicenter of my contact system—I have the cell number and e-mail of anyone I regularly contact. I use Google Apps for my domain (free for personal use), which gives me a white-label Gmail back end for firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s a really sweet free service called NuevaSync that provides perfect synchronization of my calendar and my contacts for both my Windows Mobile phone and my iTouch. LinkedIn and Facebook are also excellent places for finding contact information.
Lastly, whenever my assistant schedules a meeting, she puts their phone number in the title in case something goes wrong.
6.) What channels do you utilize to build strong relationships? Do you prefer using a specific tool–e-mail, twitter, blogging/comments, phone, face-to-face, LinkedIn, etc.?
My 40% rule suggests you must use a channel regularly before you can understand it. Experiment—I started on Twitter because I didn’t understand why people I respect loved it. (I’ve since realized the forced brevity sets an expectation of low commitment—it’s a great crowdsourcing tool for assembling a loose, acquaintance-oriented network.)
Asking a question implies you want to know the answer—don’t be a jerk and send an SMS saying “how are you?” No 160 character message can answer that question. Never inhibit an honest answer–always match your conversation to the channel.
Similarly, Facebook people with “what are you up to?” because that question can be honestly answered in public. When you really want to know “how are you?” use the phone or meet face-to-face. If you don’t want to take the time to listen, don’t ask. Otherwise your concern for people seems insincere. (Is it insincere?)
Remember, networking success is not saying “hi” to tons of people—that’s an annoying waste of time. Networking success is building real relationships and helping people solve their problems.
When I come across a good blog post, I try to leave a concise, but thoughtful comment. It’s a nice thank-you for the writer’s effort. It also helps me process and integrate what I read. (I use ActiveWords to auto-fill the name/e-mail/website box so I just type my comment.)
I use services like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to listen. These public profiles are an efficient way to learn a person’s interests, skills, and problems. Then I use Delicious/Twitter/e-mail/phone to suggest people or links they might find useful. On the flip side, work to be “helpable”. Ask questions on twitter. Inform your network of your problems—but never whine.
Lastly, be a human being. There’s something mysterious about relationships—they’re far more than informational transactions. Show care for others. Not because they can help you. Because you genuinely care about them. Even if they can’t help you.
Face-to-face is where I build trust—you can get a better read of a person’s underlying motivations there. “Business happens at the speed of trust.”
7.) What are some of the negatives associated with professional networking that you encounter, and how do you deal with and/or overcome them?
For example: “Some people have a stigma about networking; why do you think this is, and how do you get past it?” and “You obviously enjoy connecting with people. But are there some people you try to avoid?” and “I know a phenomenal connector who doesn’t command much respect because he’s viewed as a talker, not a doer. Do you think others look at you the same way?”
Yesterday, I listened to a fantastic podcast by Joel Peterson on negotiating. He defined trust in negotiations as three ingredients:
- 1) Trust in character—do you trust your mom?
2) Trust in competence—do you trust your mom’s ability?
3) Trust in empowerment—will others trust your mom?
Ultimately, negative networking occurs when trust is broken on any of those levels. We’ve all experienced times when someone used us (lack of character), connected us to other people who did NOT solve our problems (lack of networking discernment/competence), or provided an introduction that meant nothing to the other party (lack of empowerment). My most spectacular networking failures occurred when I connected people who couldn’t help each other.
Overcoming these distrusts takes consistent hard work and time. You can’t avoid pre-conceived mistrust. But I find that working hard to help others in an honest and humble fashion is the best way to overcome cynicism.
Never wait for them to ask for help—initiate. Networking isn’t about using people, but about making it easy for people to find you. Show up with an interesting story that provokes more questions. And recognize your reputation is worth far more than the size of your network.
8.) Jeff, what’s a tangible next action for becoming a better networker?”
Last year, I spent two hours a week visiting an assisted living center for elderly folk. I learned far more about building genuine relationships there than any networking event or conference.
You read more of Jeff’s very insightful (and in-depth work) on his blog or contact him via Twitter.
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Nursing Home Networking w/ Jeff Widman — http://tinyurl.com/czga9n