Traditionally, many executives extend their networks beyond the workplace by joining clubs, religious groups, benevolent societies or professional associations. In most of those cases, interaction within the network is restricted to occasional meetings or correspondence. Although personal relationships can develop, finding and staying in close touch with valuable peers is not easy in these settings.
Using online social networks, it is possible to extend your professional network almost without bounds; finding peers, potential customers, experts and other helpful individuals anywhere in the world. Frankly, the biggest challenge is how to restrict your network to a practical size. Is it really possible to have some form of meaningful personal relationship with more than 500 people? The answer is: probably not, unless you are a savant for remembering names and personal details.
Online social networking is a skill, and the skill is to connect with a manageable-sized group of diverse, valuable people who can help you (and vice versa) to succeed in your job, your career and your life.
So how do we acquire this skill?
Like any other skill, it takes practice. It is easy to register (usually for free) on a business-oriented social networking website. LinkedIn is the Grand-daddy of professional social networking websites and the most populated and successful one to date, but there are a host of other sites catering to specialized businesses. Here is a list of 20 of them:. Of course, many people use sites such as Facebook and Twitter for business networking as well, but my opinion is that for executives, these media are better suited to purely social interactions.
Once registered, you are asked to create a profile, optionally with photo. You are then free to "connect" with anyone in the world that has access to the internet. But how do you find the "right" people and get them to connect with you? One way is to "invite" people that you already know - all you need is their email addresses, and you can send them invitations through the site. Networks like LinkedIn also offer a search tool that allows you to see if people you know (or know of and want to connect to) already have a presence on the site, making it easier to invite them to connect with you.
Here is one of the skills: For many people, you must have some compelling reason for them to connect with you. Just saying "I would like to add you to my network" may not do it for them. What is in it for them? Remember that they are thinking about how to relate to 500 connections too. A better way is to find some commonality that you already have, such as a common university you both attended, a common workplace, a common interest, or - best of all - a common "friend" in the network. Having found someone with whom you would like to connect, LinkedIn will tell you if you have common connections. So try an invitation such as this: "I am a friend of _____ and a fellow alumnus of yours from the University of ______. I am very interested in getting to know you and hearing about your work at ______. Will you connect with me?" This kind of plea will usually cause the recipient to review your profile and decide if you may be a valuable connection for him or her.
Another way to make connections and form relationships is to join discussion groups within the social networking site. You can peruse the list of topics or communities and join the ones that are of interest and relevance to you. Contributing to discussions is a great way to meet and connect with like-minded people in the network.
A second skill is to become disciplined about following up on these website connections with a personal connection. You cannot become a nuclear physicist by buying a book on nuclear physics to sit on your shelf. Similarly, being connected on a social website does not mean that you and your connection "know" each other in any sense. Ask your new connection to have a short phone call to introduce each other and get to know one another a little personally, or better yet meet face-to-face (if practical) or on a Skype video call. These interactions are the real beginnings of a personal networking relationship. If someone is not interested in a short call or does not respond after a few such invitations, then I discretely drop him from my network.
The third skill is to keep your new relationships fresh. Send each person an occasional email with an update of your work or something of interest for them. Make an occasional phone call. Or if you will be in their vicinity, ask them to meet you for coffee or lunch.
As these relationships grow, you will find that they add value to your work and career in numerous and unpredictable ways. Some ways I have found are
- getting personal references about potential new employees
- finding new career or business opportunities
- getting recommendations on top suppliers
- receiving candid information on how customers really feel about your products or service
- finding experts in many areas
- getting (or giving) coaching and mentoring
- discussing challenges, both business and personal
- learning new methods of management
Of course, like building any relationship, forming and maintaining this kind of social network takes time, energy and discipline. Most busy executives don't have a lot of extra time. One suggestion is to carve out a few hours per week to dedicate to the discipline of social networking. Most of it can be done in the evening instead of watching television, for example. A good goal might be to add one valuable connection to your network each week.
The main point is this: to remain relevant in today's internet-centric business world, it is very important for executives to develop and practice the skills of online social networking.