Networking outside the firewall

In a large company like IBM, it’s easy to forget to interact with the outside world. The internal network of people is rich and varied. We have our own conferences, our own mailing lists, our own communities. If you’re not paying attention, you can easily forget about what’s going on outside.

But reaching out to people outside the organization is important, because it will let you:

  • build relationships with current and potential clients, suppliers and partners, and other interesting people
  • connect better inside the organization (true!)
  • learn from what’s going on in the industry, and share what you’re doing
  • create even more value for even more people, and
  • help you prepare opportunities just in case you need to look for a new position

Anna Dreyzin invited me to speak at a breakfast meeting for a women’s networking group at IBM. While thinking out loud about what new tips I can share in 10-15 minutes, I realized that I can share a very different approach to networking that can result in a lot of benefits for less effort.

You see, traditional networking is active. You reach out to other people, cultivating your network with frequent contact through e-mail, coffee, shared lunches, and other activities. You can build strong relationships, but this takes time.

Active networking can be hard to fit into your schedule. When you have a full load of work, it’s difficult to take time to meet people for coffee or lunch. When you’re daunted by the number of messages in your inbox, you probably won’t feel like sending off another note to keep in touch. When you’re busy working inside an organization, you might not remember to make an effort to connect with people outside it.

Active networking doesn’t scale. With traditional networking, you tend to be limited to people you’ve met or with whom you’ve had direct contact. You can grow your network by attending events, getting referrals, and working on projects with different groups of people, but your network grows slowly.

In contrast, I would characterize my way of networking as mostly passive networking. Instead of actively reaching out to people, I focus on making it easier for people to keep in touch with me, and to giving them reasons for doing so.

This is all because I’m shy and I have such a hard time starting conversations or calling people on the phone.
When I started giving conference presentations in my third year at university, I realized that it was much easier to connect with more people if I gave them reasons to start the conversation. When I started blogging at around the same time, I learned that blogging was an even better way to reach out. And when social networking sites like LinkedIn came on the scene, I found them to be a great way to keep track of my growing network.

By combining social networking, blogging, and public speaking, I can invest a little time and effort into sharing what I’m learning, reach far more people than I would have the time or courage to approach myself, and build relationships I would not have expected to have. People find my website through search engines, the business cards I hand out, and the web address in my e-mail signature. If I provide enough value, maybe they’ll subscribe to keep up to date with what I’m learning. I also occasionally receive e-mail and requests from outside the organization, which reminds me that yes, there is a world out there. ;) A little bit of effort, a whole lot of reward.

So let’s flip networking around. If you find it difficult to reach out to people, make it easier for them to reach out to you. Here’s how to do it:

  • Be findable. If someone lost your business card or your e-mail to them, would they be able to find you again? It helps to have your own website, or at least a profile on a professional social networking site such as LinkedIn. This is also a good opportunity to share your professional and personal interests, so that people can learn more about your skills and possible common ground that you share with them. If you’re just starting out, LinkedIn is a good place to create your first profile. Here are some tips for making the most of LinkedIn:
    • Complete your profile, including the picture
    • Upload your addressbook and connect with your contacts who are already on LinkedIn
    • Write and ask for testimonials
    • Answer and ask questions
  • Share what you’re learning with others. There will always be someone who knows more than you do, and someone who knows less. Learn from those who know more and teach those who know less. A blog is an excellent way to share what you’re learning. In the beginning, it may seem awkward to write short and quick reflections on what you’ve learned or how you can do things better, but over time, you’ll accumulate an archive of useful tips. One of the key challenges for people who are learning how to blog outside the organization’s firewall is figuring out what they can write about while honoring their business conduct guidelines and their company’s intellectual property policies. Don’t give out company secrets, but try to find things you can talk about that people outside the organization would find valuable. You’ll get a surprising amout of value back. Yes, you may be teaching potential competitors along the way, but you’ll also demonstrate your skills and expertise to potential clients–and if you’ve got a real competitive advantage in terms of your experience and skills, your clients will still pick you.
  • Look for opportunities to scale. If you learn something or do something, find a way to get even more value from the time and effort you invested in it. If you read a book or an article, think of who else in your network could benefit from what you’ve learned.If you spent two hours solving a problem, spend 5-15 minutes writing some quick notes that can save other people that time. If you spent forty hours learning a new technology, reach even more people and save even more time by writing blog posts and putting together presentations. If you plan to attend a conference, look into either speaking at it or helping organize it – you’ll meet a lot more people that way. Always look for opportunities to get–and create–more value from the time and effort youv’e already invested in something.
  • Jason Varmazis

    The key to positive networking is the value you can bring to others, not what value you can extract from others. Your approach to “passive networking” hits the nail dead on. You are bringing value to your network as your way of introduction. If you read some of the traditional books on networking (pre Internet, Web 2.0) they focus on finding out how you can help people when you are first introduced to them as a means of building a rich network. You are able to accomplish this in a much more scalable fashion through your Web 2.0 channels.

  • http://coevolving.com David Ing

    I really agree on being findable. I’m am amazed at how many people don’t take control of their own web personas.

    In particular, I’m amazed at how many people use only their corporate work e-mail addresses, and the e-mail address provided by their Internet Service Providers (e.g. cable, DSL), and then things go awry when an unexpected change happens.

    The optimal solution is to own or share a web domain — if not a personal domain, then someone in the extended family might own one. Much simpler is a webmail provider such as Google Mail (and hopefully one with good spam detection). Since these e-mail addresses are “free”, it can be worth having multiple addresses for different purposes. When someone searches for you, at least one of the e-mail addresses should come up.

    Of course, it pays to remember to check all of those e-mail addresses periodically, just so you don’t forget the password(s) you set!