6 Ways To Nourish Your Network

There are numerous ways to continually build networks. Make it a point to meet a new person every day. Look for community activities that link people. Join professional associations. Volunteer to become part of the membership committee. Pass out name tags at events, which ensures that you meet everyone attending. Meet people who know people, and let them introduce you to others. When Barack Obama first moved to Chicago in the 1980s, he was befriended by Abner Mivka, an old and well-connected Windy City politician. Mikva says Obama knew how to network. "I remember our first few meetings. He would say, 'Do you know So-and so?' and I’d say yes. 'How well do you know him? I'd really like to meet him.' I would set up some lunches."

Here are six further keys to cultivate relationships the right way: 

1) Become The Parent Of Relationships

In a roomful of married people, ask how many met their spouses through third parties. Some hands will shoot up. Ask these people who that third party was, and with no hesitation, they will mention a name. Ask them if they owe that person and, to the degree that they are still happily married, they will nod. The introducers played a vital networking role. Successful salespeople are often masters of creating new relationships for their customers. A salesperson has a client who bemoans her inability to find a good vendor for some equipment. The salesperson has another client whose firm offers exactly what the first person needs. The salesperson suggests to both of them, "Why don’t I get you two together for lunch?'" If the two hit it off, both of them owe the salesperson. This sort of networking can pay off for everyone.

2) Focus On Power, Not Position

Successful advocates wisely develop strong networks with powerful decision-makers long before they pitch their ideas. They also build sturdy ties with people who can influence decision makers. They never ignore the gatekeepers--the mid-level staff members, administrative assistants, and schedulers who control access to the decision makers--because they often have enormous influence on decision makers. As one executive said, "Keep my admin happy and I'm happy!" The father of the European Union, Jean Monnet, was extraordinarily talented at crafting networks of bureaucrats in governments throughout Europe who supported his ideas. As one of his biographers writes, "He was adept at locating unknowns behind the government façade, irrespective of their age, status, or experience, who exercised influence over [those with] crucial power, provided a route to them, or simply conveyed important information. He had no snobbery. A useful contact would be cultivated as carefully as a prime minister or president, and with the same respect.’"

3) Befriend Those Without Friends

At any social event someone is hanging around the periphery not talking with anyone. You have a new assignment at these affairs: Walk over to those solitary people. Chat them up. If they don’t know anyone at the event, introduce them to people you know. Why? Besides doing what a nice person should do, by helping people who have no friends you are making friends. Think back to the first people who befriended you at your current job, or the first person who talked with you when you entered a school where you knew no one. You probably still remember those people even if they are not now close friends. If they called and said they were in town visiting, you would want to meet. If they needed a favor, you would want to oblige. Without doubt, some people are ignored at social gatherings for good reasons. And some solitary people will really be uninterested in talking with you. Otherwise, befriending those alone is a good deed, and you never know how it might benefit you in the future.

4) Keep Records

We have all had the experience of running into someone we know and suddenly failing to remember anything about them. Effective advocates don't trust important information about people to memory. Instead, they jot down that information so they can refer to it later. Any good networker knows that what is important is not only who you know or who knows you. It is also what you know about who you know.

What should you write down about people in your contact file? Names, phone numbers, and addresses are only a start. Sophisticated networkers discover things about each person that make him or her special. This individuating information consists of such things as a favorite sport, the college she or he attended, a fondly remembered trip, or a preferred wine. It might be as simple as the names of the spouse and children. How do you gather individuating information? Listen to what people say about themselves. Observe what is on their office walls. Notice what they order for meals. Procure their business cards. After your meeting with someone, jot down the special things that you learned on the back of his or her card.

Remembering seemingly small details about a decision maker, such as a hobby or a partner's name, can be as important as any argument you are making when pitching your idea. If you recall that my daughter is a fine swimmer, you can walk into the meeting, say in greeting, "How's that swimmer of yours doing?’" and I can't help but smile.

5) Put Yourself in Places Where Networking Happens

Good networkers find places where they can connect with others. Every organization has spots where people just sit around and chat--the cafeteria or coffee room, in the lobby or by the elevator. Networking may happen during happy hour or at the seemingly spontaneous "Want to go for lunch?’" moment (go!). Any profession or group has known networking locales. Figure out where they are, and spend time there.

6) Work on Your Weak Ties

You might not have a strong relationship with those people who are utterly different, but therelationship might still be important. A sociologist, Mark Granovetter, established that when he explored how engineers in New England found their current jobs. Not surprisingly, most discovered their positions through personal networks. They turned to people who knew people who knew about possible jobs. But when probing the connections, Granovetter discovered that he had to distinguish between people's strong ties and their weak ties. Strong ties were the tight connections with people they worked with every day, people they lived with, people who shared the same knowledge and even the same friends. Weak ties represented less intense connections--with people, for instance, whom they vaguely knew who, in turn, knew others who had information the original people needed.

We learn and come to think differently when exposed to others who value different things, who see the world in dissimilar ways, and who know people we don’t. Teams composed of people with many weak ties perform more effectively and more quickly than teams composed of people with only strong ties. New ideas emerge when people are surrounded by others who know things they don’t know. As Ronald Burt, a researcher at the University of Chicago, says, "'People who live in the intersection of social worlds are at a higher risk of having good ideas.’"

Adapted from Advocacy: Championing Ideas and Influencing Others. Reproduced by Permission of Yale University Press. ©2011 by John A. Daly.

[Image: Flickr user Mark Howells-Mead]

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