The best professional relationships I have ever formed have come from unexpected places. Clothing swaps. Birthday parties. Continuing education classes. The Internet. Places where you meet a stranger and can chat long enough to find common ground and become genuinely interested in each other–environments that allow you to become friends first, professional peer mentors second. I have met and kept in touch with amazing confidantes, peer mentors, and role models in this way.
I consider myself lucky to have formed so many professional relationships so organically, but I know that in some cities and industries, mine is a less likely reality. Professional events like Meetups, conferences, and speed mentoring help bridge that gap, yet many of us feel ill-suited in attending.
Too big, too busy, too loud to give anyone a chance to really get to know someone–it can be hard for two strangers to truly connect in that type of setting. This explains why so many people are eager to hand you a business card instead of a conversation. We rush to exchange information, because that’s what the environment calls for.
Yet there’s a fundamental challenge that comes from these freshly formed almost-relationships. They operate without the foundation of how many of the best relationships are formed: over time, with mutual care and interest.
Today there are a lot of tools to help speed up that process and allow us to quickly build online the relationships we begin offline. Keeping in touch is as easy as the click of a Facebook like, a LinkedIn congrats, or an email forward. But the more ways we find to keep in touch, the greater the challenge to keep those interactions honest.
Here are four suggestions–not steps–to building and maintaining authentic relationships:
Tools like Newsle and LinkedIn are great at helping you keep on top of what those in your Facebook world, Twitterverse, and LinkedIn networks are up to. They update you when contacts are featured in the news, and each digest, in theory, is an opportunity to reach out and keep your network warm.
No doubt about it, these are useful tools, but only if you have something genuine to say. The rookie move (and I’ve seen it so many times!) is to forward the link in question (say, an article mentioning you or the company you work for), and send an unanswerable one-liner: “I saw your article about . . . !”
This gives the recipient little to respond to, and the subtext is clear: “I see your article and acknowledge that because the Internet told me you are important today. By the way, remember me?”
If you’re looking to start a genuine conversation, by all means, do! But if you’re reaching out because you feel like you have to (and that will show), you’d better not. If you don’t mean it, don’t send it.
Email isn’t the only channel to use for more serious networking. If you see news of a friend changing jobs on Facebook, comment or like it right there. If a professional contact posts a job change on LinkedIn, answer in-line. If you get a Newsle update via email about someone in your network, it is perfectly okay to forward it to them and add a hearty message.
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging where your information is coming from and contributing to the conversation right there. You don’t get brownie points for taking it to a different channel that seems more intimate.
It’s like Facebook birthdays: You probably remembered to wish someone a happy birthday because Facebook reminded you, and the birthday celebrator likely knows that, too. There’s no shame in that! And certainly no need to jump to a different channel to feign intimacy and pretend it’s more personal than it is.
The exception, of course, is length–should you have a paragraph+ worth of congrats and curiosities, switch to a 1:1 channel.
Sometimes it makes sense to follow up within 48 hours of meeting someone, sometimes it doesn’t. If there’s a time-sensitive request, suggestion, or invitation to be shared, by all means, go forth and start planning. But if you are following up within 48 hours simply because it feels like you should, peel back.
As with all relationships, this too is a courtship. You may send relevant articles instead of flowers, invite them to Meetups instead of group dates, offer to take them to lunch instead of dinner. . . when the time is right. There is no need to rush the forming of your professional relationship. Give people (and their calendars) a bit of breathing room to get to know you first.
There is no one-size-fits-all networking script or magic formula to abide by when it comes to relationship-building. People are different, and so are you.
Remember that these and other lists are suggestions, so you should adapt them in ways that make sense to you. Keep it simple, keep it honest, and allow yourself to be a real person–not a script.