My manager is very much an extrovert. I think he’s amused by my reflections on networking as an introvert, the fact that I’m consciously working on getting better at keeping in touch with people, and the elaborate personal contact relationship management system I’ve been building for myself. He asked, “How do you stop it from becoming mechanical?”
How do you keep in touch while keeping it real?
I’ve read a lot of books about networking, and I don’t quite feel comfortable with what they suggest. Like many people, I think of successful networkers as those glad-handing salespeople and politicians who are always calling people up, having lunch with them, sending cards, or otherwise keeping in touch. The prospect of doing likewise scares the heck out of me. I hate interrupting people by calling them. I hesitate to send e-mail updates because (a) people’s inboxes overflow, and (b) I sometimes get dinged because I’m “not personal enough” (although I’ve come to realize it’s mostly a matter of perspective). I’ve been working on keeping track of birthdays, but I haven’t quite gotten to the point of making people feel all warm and fuzzy.
And yet, somehow, people have called me a connector so often that I’ve come to believe it a bit myself. I’ve had the pleasure of learning from a great many people. I enjoy being able to connect the dots. I like remembering little things about people and referring to those things after most people would have forgotten. (I think that’s driven by my love of in-jokes and play.)
There are two ideas that make it easier for me to keep in touch, and maybe they can help you too.
Asynchronous, asymmetric communication: By this, I mean blog posts, tweets, social network updates, and all these other tools we use to share bits of our lives with others. It’s asynchronous because you can post or read when convenient for you, and others can post or read when convenient for them. It’s asymmetric because unlike e-mail, you don’t have to decide whom to direct something to, and they don’t have to wait for you to decide to reach out to them. This works well for me because I don’t feel comfortable sending specific people updates, but I’m fine with posting things where people could read them if they wanted to. That neatly sidesteps the possibility of rejection. I don’t have to e-mail someone and worry if I’m being a burden. It’s their choice to read, and they can unsubscribe whenever they want.
So it flips around this idea of keeping in touch. I make it easy for people to keep in touch with me. Through other people’s blogs and tweets, I keep in touch with them, but from a safe distance. ;)
Asking and giving: I love learning and I love helping people figure things out. That gives me opportunities to reach out and connect with other people who can teach me more, learn from what I’ve learned, help someone I’m helping, or benefit from meeting the person I’m helping. I get great return on experience because I can share what I’ve learned with lots of people. The more I learn about people’s interests and quirks, the better I get at finding people and making those connections. For example, if I come home from a conference with a stack of business cards, I find it much easier to develop relationships with people about whom I know specific needs or interests than with people for whom I only have contact information. Then it becomes a game: can I help a person find someone who can help make something happen, or who might know people who can? Every request and every connection lets me know more about people, which makes it easier for me to make connections in the future.
Networks are like muscles. The more you exercise them, the stronger they get. (Although networks are more like neurons than they are like muscles, because muscles get stronger because you damage the fibers, while neurons strengthen synapses with use…</tangent>)
Tools do a good job of supporting my way of connecting. Blogs and other social networking tools let me share my thoughts and “scale up”. The Emacs Big Brother Database I use to keep semi-structured notes on people (and I’ve been kidded about this before ;) ) helps me remember those little things about people: what they’re interested in, what they like, and so on. I’m good at remembering details for weeks and maybe even months, but I write as much as I can down because it’s frustrating to have a possible connection on the tip of my tongue and yet not be able to remember whom to reach out to.
So that’s how it all fits together, and that’s why I do what I do. I share both professional and personal stories on my blog because that makes it a great tool for connecting with people, and I work on my personal contact database because it helps me connect the dots.
Maybe geeks can be good connectors too, even though we approach the challenge differently. =)