The idea of capturing and documenting the concept of networking came to me during my early days as a registered lobbyist in Washington DC back in the mid-nineties. I noticed that most networking that was taking place was being done haphazardly and in most cases by accident. I began to contemplate on how to make this important part of business, and for that matter of all areas of life, more efficient and organized. I also had an underlying question: What makes one networking experience more productive than another?
What is a network? The foundation of a network is something that I like to call Common Groups (CG’s). CG’s are composed of the people throughout our lives with whom we have shared experiences and/or affiliations. For example, the members of your first grade class are a Common Group. Everyone who was born in your home town is a CG. Members from your little league football team are a CG. Those who have served in the military are a CG. Those who attended the same University, those who speak Spanish, those that are in the same profession, those that are of the same religion, those that are a part of the same ethnic group, those from the same age group and star sign, all these are Common Groups. There are many more. Knowing your Common Groups is important because people are more comfortable associating with those with whom they have some common interest or reference point. These Common Groups are the foundation of any network.
Why develop a network? Having a network optimizes and gives leverage to one’s efforts. An organized network will allow one to do more with less; less time, fewer resources, less effort. The effective network can accelerate the process. Those who have an organized network and know how to use it have a significant advantage. The good news is that everyone, whether they know it or not, has a network!
How does one identify and develop his or her own CG’s? With today’s technology in data mining and analytics, social media and connection websites can be a very useful tool to understand your CG’s. I would like to examine the raw data behind sites like Facebook and LinkedIn so you can see the basics of identifying and creating your particular common groups. Begin by thinking back to your earliest memories. Perhaps you may start back at the hospital where you were born. This is one of your earliest CG’s. I was born at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. Everyone born at Beth Israel belongs to that common group with me. Think back on elementary school, music clubs, and art clubs. Were you in the cub scouts or boy scouts? Begin to list these groups. Your old neighborhood is a group. Remember the sports leagues you joined. The city where you are from is a CG. Your home state is a CG. Even your country is a CG especially if you are a world traveler or in global business. Obviously, those from your college or university are a common group. Those from your same graduating class are another CG. Any graduate schools you may have attended, any companies where you were employed, those who work in your same industry, these are all Common Groups. CG’s can vary from very general and large to very specific and small. Often the smaller CG’s are the most effective. I am a member of two smaller, specialized CG’s: Americans doing business in Brazil and American men married to Brazilian women. I have something in common with the other individuals in these groups and this commonality will enhance our ability to connect. List as many CG’s as you can. You can and will add others in the future. Once you have identified and listed your CG’s by category, for example "childhood, begin to write down the names of the individuals you know in each group. The next step is to document the area of business or activity of those individuals, such as politics, sports, education, or energy. Once you have documented your Common Groups by the corresponding common experience, identified the individuals in each group and then identified the area of business and activity of those individuals, you have documented your personal network. So, the three key steps to developing your network are to:
1. Identify your CG’s by common experience or affiliation.
2. Identify the individuals in the CG.
3. Identify the area of business or activity of the individuals.
Now you know how LinkedIn works!
How to use your network. First, it is a good idea to connect with the members of your network from time to time when you need nothing. Simply call to catch up on each other’s activities and life experience. It is very important to cherish, support and, whenever possible, add value to your network. Use it, don’t abuse it. In general, the best time to use your network is when you have an inspired idea. Bringing an uninspired or bad idea to a member of your network can damage your credibility and possibly prevent you from ever using that contact again. The ability to identify an inspired idea comes with experience. So, start with small ideas in order to minimize potential mistakes and the need to incorporate major damage control. And, don’t worry; everyone has presented a dumb idea. Once you have an idea that you would like to present to your network you will want to select the member of your network who is operating in the area of business that is most consistent with your idea. For example, if you have an idea for a new energy drink it is preferable to present the idea to your contact at Coca Cola rather than to your contact at Exxon Mobil. This is strategic networking. Once you have made the contact with the right member of your network it is time for The Ask.
How to ask for help. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. Everyone from Donald Trump to Bill Gates has had to ask for help and continue to do so today. The first step in asking for help is to clearly explain your idea. After the idea is clearly communicated the next step is to clearly identify just what it is that you need: a meeting, advice, an introduction, investment capital, etc. The more specific that you can make The Ask, the better. If your contact agrees to help, please give him time. Your need is not his priority. He has many more important things (to him) to do. Once he has accomplished what it is that you want him to do, keep him in the loop with updates from time to time. If your contact cannot help, be thankful and appreciative. You may need his help on another occasion. The option is now available to contact the next person on your network list.
You do the same. Be available to help those from your network who come to you with their own inspired ideas. Be upfront and truthful with your impression of their ideas. Don’t worry about hurt feelings. Everyone wants to hear “Yes” but the second best answer is a fast “No”. If you like the idea and can do something to help, carry on. In many cases you will find that any benefits will be mutual.