As a novice vegetable gardener, I often see parallels between gardening and networking. Below are some of the more common questions I get asked about networking, along with my answers, some of which use the gardening theme.
Q: How important a role do you think social networking sites (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) play in growing networks?
A: Here’s my take on social technologies: Use them, but recognize they are merely a tool that helps you stay connected to your network. They don’t replace genuine, human interaction. Networking is about seeking out business connections based on mutuality and “chemistry”—both parties in the equation desire to help one another for professional gain. Social technologies accelerate the process of getting “interested parties” together. Once that happens, you must still do the work of building trust one relationship at a time.
Q: How big a network is “too big”?
A: While there’s not an upper limit to how many contacts a person can have, there may be a limit to how many people you can have meaningful, consistent interactions with. It’s OK to continually add connections to your network; just don’t sacrifice the relationship you have with your existing, most-trusted contacts. To use a gardening analogy: I have “radish” relationships (they sprout quickly, but have limited usefulness) and I have “tomato” relationships (they take more cultivation, but can be enjoyed in so many different ways). Both types of relationships are fine and needed in your network, but don’t overinvest in the one at the expense of the other.
Q: I’m so busy! How can I make time for keeping my network “alive”?
A: Nourishing your network need not be as time-consuming as you might think. You don’t need to make endless rounds of “work the room” type meetings. Instead, what if you did these three things each week: sent a congratulatory note or a recent article of interest to a colleague, dashed off a quick “how are you doing?” email to a connection you haven’t heard from in awhile and updated your LinkedIn status page. Add to that a lunch with a colleague outside of your company once a month. Over the course of a year, you’d have planted 24 “seeds” of connection with your contacts. It adds up quickly!
Q: I’m shy; I don’t want my introductory small talk to sound forced or fake. How do I start the conversation?
A: Any question that places the focus in a non-threatening way on the other person is a great place to start. Here are three possible conversation-starters:
- “What do you like best about your industry/job?”
- “What brings you to this event today?”
- “How did you get your start in this industry?”
Q: If I’m at a networking event and sense that it’s time to extricate myself from a conversation, how do I excuse myself gracefully?
A: One of my top tips for networking at large events is to imagine that you’ve been asked to act as a “host” of the event. One of things hosts do is ensure that people are mingling and getting to know one another. You can use this technique when you sense it’s time to move on. Say something like, “[person’s name], it’s been great talking with you. I made a vow to meet at least three new people tonight. Would you like to join me on that quest?” And then, look about the room for someone else to connect with. Introduce the person you’re currently talking with to another person. Listen for a moment, then politely excuse yourself move on to meeting someone new.
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