Networking: Know Your Community

networking“Software developers don’t schmooze. They talk about code & problems they’ve solved. Then they share their code.”

I was chatting with a friend at a church social about networking and meeting people when he popped this gem out. I thought this was a perfect summary of what I’ve referred to before as “networking with content”.

This topic comes up for me a lot, as I work with a number of new students every year. We preach that networking is critical to success in their search and discovery process (and it is). But we NEVER mean “go have a bunch of empty, value destroying meetings with important potential supporters.” Schmoozing doesn’t work in the long run.

So what does “effective” networking look like and what is relevant “content”? (Hint: it doesn’t mean you have to have vast experience or knowledge, but it does mean you have to be interested and interesting…)

As with all things “it depends”. Every community has its own norms for what is interesting as well as how sharing and relationship building happens. So figure it out for your current or targeted community. Here are few sample considerations from my own experience.

There are content/intellectual elements:

  • What are the major problems they face in their discipline?
  • What are the key experiential or intellectual drivers for people who succeed in these fields?
  • What do they read and where do they go to learn and share?

As well as normative/behavioral elements:

  • How do people like to be approached?
  • Are they used to networking or is it a little awkward for them?
  • Where and in what form do they share?

So what does it look like to put this thought process in play for different target communities?

Entrepreneurs burn for “the start”. They have a passion for getting ideas going. While some may be more conceptual and some more operational, they will all tend to be excited about describing their launches and have lots of war stories about “obstacles overcome” along the way. They also tend to meet with a lot of people. So if you get their time, be sure to have an idea and a limited number of questions about their path. Conversations will go best if you have examples (however large or small) that relate and lead to seeking specific advice or sharing experience.

Consultants will tend to be problem solvers who are well paid and move from client to client with strong functional expertise that varies based on their discipline. But the common thread will be solving difficult problems and working with varied clients. Every consultant has client horror stories, travel woes etc. So focus on understanding what they really do and ask thoughtful questions with some understanding of the trade.

As my friend points out, technologists (broadly defined) will be more “show and tell”. They will tend to be much more interested in how people cleverly solved certain problems. Conversations that focus on this, rather than explicit career path type questions will be more productive.

Also keep in mind that part of your discovery process is asking “are these my people”, whether it be at a company, in a functional path…whatever. So go figure out what motivates that community, what has defined success for some and see if that motivates you. The “networking with content” advice simply means respect the process and your audience enough to work at understanding a bit.

None of these people will expect you to know everything. But you should hold yourself to a certain threshold of awareness and curiosity. And remember to be just a little creative and thoughtful. Your value might be simple, but demonstrate a certain spark. I always suggest simple things like “have you read an article recently that might be relevant to the other person?” If you are in school, you may be seeing more cutting edge theory than what more experienced professionals see day to day. “Content” here doesn’t necessarily have to be deep or profound. Just relevant and interesting.

What I suspect is that when you are into something, you’ll find you’re really into it. The best relationship building interactions are when you lose track of time, the conversation flows and you move from idea to idea. Similarly, you’ll know when you’re not. And that’s really useful to know too.

So how do you find others and convey authentic interest in something? By sharing. Advice, content, ideas, interest…whatever it might be.

More thoughts on networking can be found here:

http://www.phils-career-blog.com/2010/07/business-networking-strategy-part-1/

 

 

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2 Responses to “Networking: Know Your Community”

  • Linda Halliburton:

    Phil brings up some very important points about effective networking. Although it may not be as relevant for college students, another key point to remember is to ask others how you can return the favor. Just as you are looking for information and help, so are they. Once you make it a two-way street, it will be much more rewarding for you both!

    • Phil:

      Linda – I completely agree and have suggested that in the past (just didn’t want to re-rewrite and old networking post :-). The idea of “being useful” is one I always encourage as a mindset for creating social capital. For students, it can be something small, while for professionals it might be a simple introduction to someone else. Rarely needs to be something big.

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