Sunday, January 19, 2003

Networking for Dummies

So last night I went to a networking event - it was rather eye-opening. This was a reunion of a bunch of us who all used to work together. Whether or not you have any particular fondness for an old work environment or the people you spent time with there, there was no question that this was a lot of people that potentially could help each other out one way or another. Or hurt, depending on how the interactions went. It struck me that just working with a group of folks on a day to day basis not only is like that, but sets the stage for how an event like this, real, virtual, or completely imaginary, might play out.

I know some folks who didn't go because they never cared for the people much. Opportunities lost - or not; maybe they weren't needed. Some folks who didn't go because they aren't comfortable at these things. Too bad; a little discomfort never killed anyone and hey, it's really not that tough to learn how to at least APPEAR comfortable. Then there were folks who went and really didn't know anyone. That's when I started to understand something a little better. I found I knew quite a lot of people. Not only that but at least some of them seemed interested in how I was doing and what I was up to. Strange, because I don't exactly consider myself particularly social. Certainly I'm not entirely comfortable in that role anyway.

As the evening wore on, however, and I nursed my beer, I found myself remembering spouses and children's names, that someone else got their Master's degree, that someone else used to live south of the city instead of north like they do now, etc. I'm probably not going to win the Survivor challenge where you have to know all about your teammates but that having paid attention some time back really paid off. People felt more at ease talking with me as I asked them about the things that they cared about.

There's more to it though, than being able to make small talk or show an interest in another person or whatever you want to call it. More than one person has told me that part of why they don't like associating with people from the rest of the company is that those folks tend to make Tech Support folks feel like "Other". It's true that people from departments outside of ours tend to make it difficult to get along with them. But I have found that if I make an effort to get to know them as individuals, they do respond positively. I have made it a practice to get to know as many people as I could outside of my department right from the very beginning, and I always have felt that it makes a huge difference in my ability to work with those people and get what I need from them. It especially works when at least some of my interactions with them are NOT about having some request. Sometimes I've even joked about not needing anything from a person that day - that all I stopped by for was to say hello. It nearly always gets at least a chuckle.

See, the thing is, as soon as we're relating as individuals, it's harder to fit into that "Other" category. So naturally you're a step closer to working well together. This has worked within a single department, between departments within a company and also with people outside the company such as customers and third party vendors.

Oh, and by the way - not that you would, because you're the kind who probably despises slick-sounding sales types anyway, but don't even try to fake it; it doesn't work. People smell insincerity a long way off and it does NOT sell. Try just studying people and looking for things about them that you find interesting. For real.

In my case, it has always been sincere, and it has always paid off. Getting to know more folks paved the way for me to learn more as they were willing to share with me what they knew. As I became more knowledgeable, I earned my way into talking with even more technical folks and gaining an even greater understanding. More people knew who I was and I had more to offer technically and suddenly I was considered for positions I hadn't even considered previously. The seeking new positions and getting some of them gave me an opportunity to get to know more people and learn even more and the cycle continued. And for those that are primarily interested in technical knowledge, you might care to know that the coolest part of all of this was getting to play with newer and cooler technology every step of the way. That came from exercising people smarts, not just smarts.

The upshot? Getting to know people and showing a genuine interest in them improves working relationships. Improved working relationships makes getting work done easier. Having an easier time getting work done not only makes us more effective, it also makes doing the work more fun.