So … how good a networker are you? That is, are you maximizing your relationship capital? It’s an important question that too few of us ask. And once asked, answering isn’t as simple as adding up your contacts. A smart networker pauses every once in a while to look at the big picture. Periodic self-assessment can help uncover weak spots in your business and career persona, inside your organization and externally. Let’s hold up a mirror to your networking skills:
1. Do you make things happen?
Quick: Can you name at least three people who have their jobs right now because of you? Not people you hired, but those you connected to the eventual hirer. Half (if not more) of the relationship capital equation is about giving, so a useful way to assess whether you’re amassing it is to ponder such a question. (Job fills, by the way, are especially valuable because they create two reciprocity points; both employer and employee are in your debt.) Relationship capital gurus will tell you that networkers can, without thinking too hard, conjure five people they helped to get jobs. Or five positions they helped to fill. Or five deals they helped to close. Networkers actualize.
2. Are people bothering you for help?
Of course, it’s tough to do favors of any kind if you’re not being asked, which is why another way to measure your relationship capital quotient is how often you are sought out to solve someone else’s problem. Do friends and colleagues ask you to review presentations? Do they offer to buy you lunch to pick your brain? Do in-laws and cousins and in-law’s cousins ask you to meet with a recent college graduate or career-in-crisis colleague? And do you make the time if they do?
Requests like these don’t necessarily presume you have the answer. Instead, these seekers do believe they can count on you to supply a link to someone who does. In his 2009 book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results, Cal-Berkeley professor Morten T. Hansen, a former management consultant, calls this type of person a bridge: “Bridges are uniquely placed by virtue of their networks to help other people search. They direct queries. People use them for whom they know, not for what they know.” A good rule of thumb: If you’re not spending at least an hour a week on some favor or another you’re not a serious networker. Relationship capital requires commitment.
3. Do you volunteer even when not asked?
Bridges aren’t only sought; they seek as well. Bridges routinely insert themselves in other people’s quests, to provide options via their connections. In other words, they ask what they can do to help. When someone in a meeting mentions that she’s thinking of starting a business, bridges inquire about her staff or funding needs. Maybe they mention a couple of people who might fit either bill. Leveraging their network in this way spans a relationship gap and accumulates potential credit with two contacts (the person with the need, and the person supplied to fill it).
4. Are you industry-blind?
It’s a well-known principal of psychology that people tend to associate with people very much like them. This happens in business too, and it’s a costly bias. The human brain has been shown to favor proven paths when solving problems; the fewer interactions you have with people who see the world differently, the less likely you are to come up with an unusual, paradigm-shifting lead or deal or hire. That’s why expert bridges develop links to contacts outside their industry and intellectual circles.
They’re not bored, they’re looking to spark new ideas. And according to Hansen, not only does diversity trump quantity, it’s easier to maintain. That is, you can afford to do less networking if a greater portion of the time you spend is devoted to connections beyond your comfort zone. So one more helpful rule: One out of every five of your networking “moments” should be purposeless or unexplainable; that is, ones for which you won’t be able to say exactly why you’re meeting/emailing/calling a certain person save for the fact that they are smart, interesting and willing to make the time.
Because you never know: They might be a bridge to something greater.