5 Networking Tips from Dictators, Drunkards, Authors and Salesmen

I’ve come to a bit of a quarter-life crisis. Questions have been raised that I don’t have good answers to. “What’s the next step? “Where do you want to be in 5 years?” It seems we are all struggling with such questions. I can’t tell you how many amazing young people I know who have been axed in the past month – and how many more I’m talking to every day, who are 22, graduating, ready to take on the world, but can’t find a place to start. One recently came to me, asking for tips on how to approach his job search. I told him I wasn’t an authority on the subject, but I’d read a ton and talked to plenty of people who did know a thing or two. I decided to write some ideas down, especially the more unlikely ones.

There are better places to read about finding mentors; I’m going to teach you how to take over a small South American country, and how to turn bar buddies into valuable connections. I’m going to share with you what I learned from Seattle’s finest connectors and some of my wisest friends back in Texas. So here are a few ideas, none of them mine, to help you and I both get better at networking:

1. Build Your Personal Brand

I was recently talking to a friend and recent transplant to Seattle, and he said that he had gotten really aggressive about cultivating his social brand, and that he was now going to do the same thing with his professional one. Personal brand is a lovely buzz word, but I wanted to know, what did he really mean? “You’re actually really good at this,” he told me. He had looked at some of his friends who were more established in Seattle, and had modeled his personal brand on theirs. He started with amping up his presence on Facebook – more pictures, more activity, more effort to reach out to friends. He said he wanted to start a blog – which now he has. Now he was going to move on to his professional brand, and was stepping up his efforts to connect to people on LinkedIn.

I personally am a fan of blogging because it’s healthy for me, it’s how I sort out my issues, and I enjoy writing. But one of the things that Career Distinction, a book Ahmed recommended, taught me, is that your blog also becomes an extension of your personal brand, it becomes your online portfolio, a platform from which you can demonstrate your business acumen or tech savvy. I believe that everyone should start a blog. And if you’re interested, here are some tips on getting started.

In a world where we use more plug-and-play services than ever, where we plug people in and out to solve specific problems, where there is reduced friction and companies are adaptive (see a previous post on this concept: My Vendors Have Vendors) your personal brand becomes the way people gauge your value, and how they chose who needs to get plugged-in in order to solve a particular problem.

2. Pay it Forward

Last weekend NetIP Seattle (the Network of Indian Professionals) recently hosted a networking workshop with Hoan Do, an up-and-coming speaker who talks to young people about time management, networking, and success. One of Hoan’s key points was the idea of paying-it-forward, reminding me of one of my favorite recent reads, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi. The idea is that when you meet a new person, rather than asking all the usual dull biographical questions like where are you from and what do you do, ask them what they are passionate about. If they came to a networking event, ask them what brought them there? Then ask “how can I help you in your passion?”

Look for opportunities to use what you have, and who you know, to help other people, and in that way build a reputation for helping others and a network of people who can help. The event itself is a good example. Hoan has a gift for speaking. Taha and the NetIP board had asked Hoan to speak, and he agreed to help. He offered us some free tickets to his book signing, and even agreed to speak for free if we didn’t break-even on the event. Out of the event, he got great exposure, this blog entry and perhaps others, and an opportunity to make more inroads into the South Asian community. This week NetIP is promoting his book launch to our sizable mailing list, those who attended his talk may decide to attend the book signing, and I’ll personally be willing to help him in the future. That’s the concept of pay it forward.

3. SGI

That afternoon, after the NetIP event, I came home and started reading the Wall Street Journal, where I found the new WSJ magazine, and a fascinating article on Desiree Rogers – the Social Secretary in the Obama White House. Reading about Rodgers’ career, I was again reminded of Never Eat Alone. Both Ferrazzi and Rogers used dinner parties – his in LA and hers in Chicago – as a social tool.

After reading the article on Rogers, I began thinking about who I am. I began thinking about the person I was at Berkeley, the person I am in Seattle, trying to recapture something I felt I’d lost. The fire to start things, organize things, to love everyone, and bring people together, that made me who I am. It’s so easy, when you’re hard at work, to forget to connect with people. I call my girlfriend every night, but besides her, I spend so little quality time with my friends. The quality time gets crowded-out by work on one side, and the big parties on the other, and unless I make a space in the middle for small group interaction, it never seemed to happen.

I remembered something that Vivek, Ricky, and Sumesh had taught me. When they moved back to Dallas after college, they began going out, trying to meet people. It was difficult. You see all these people out at bars, you may vaguely know some of them, you get introduced to some more, but how do turn these people into actual friends? How do you convert “weekend friends” – people you go out with on weekends but spend no real quality time with, into “weeknight friends” that you can really connect with, can help you find a girl, or find a job, or accomplish what you’re passionate about? The answer, my three friends taught me, was SGI. Small Group Interaction, they told me, was the missing key to creating lasting friendships and getting to know people in Dallas, and it wasn’t until they were able to create SGI that they were able to break-into the Dallas community.

We started talking about it, and I shared with them some of my recipes for SGI. One great idea, I have found, is the pre-party or pre-game. You meet at someone’s house for a drink before going out to dinner, to an event, or to a bar. Psychologically now, instead of “I saw them at a bar” the night becomes “we all went out to a bar together.” Another great concept – the after-event trip to IHOP, or the after-party at someone’s apartment. Now, hopefully you can find someplace more interesting than IHOP – a good option in Seattle is 13 Coins which is a bit more charming – but again it serves the purpose of converting the people you met up with at a bar or at an event into people whom you spend the evening with, and shared the experience with. Another good idea – the Sunday brunch. Let everyone know the night before, when you see them, that we should all meet up at CJ’s or Coastal Kitchen for brunch the next day – keep it late – like noon – so that everyone has time to show up – and again it extends the night into the morning, where you can have a more meaningful conversation.

I started thinking about my own ambitions of throwing dinner parties. Reeta and I used to joke that we were “YITs – Yuppies-in-Training” and that someday we would throw fabulous dinner parties together. Nina and I, after I made her watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s with me, decided that we would throw a fabulous party someday, just like Holly Golightly. And the original inspiration, my mother, was a master at dinner parties, having learned from her parents, and had brought me up in the family art of fabulous parties. It is no surprise, then, that Seema and Sirina told Khushboo, my girlfriend, that she was perfect for me, because they could see her throwing dinner parties at my side someday. All of this came back to my desire to throw a dinner party, to class it up, and to very deliberately invite the most interesting people in Seattle, just for the sake of fun. It’s that type of organizing that I always relished, that I never made time for.

That’s when I decided that I want to throw a dinner party of my own. I stayed up that night, writing up a guestlist, brainstorming a menu, because of course for this party I would learn to cook. I looked up recipes, I brainstormed drinks, appetizers, and even reviewed the Holly Golightly playlist I had been building for years, in anticipation of the day I finally threw my dinner party.

4. Infrastructure

Becoming an effective connector is a lot like becoming the dictator of a small South American country: the first thing you do is seize control of key infrastructure like the airport and the tv station. The reason? The dictator knows that if he controls the capitol building, he controls the seat of power. But if you control the TV station, you control what people think, and if you’ve got the airport, you control who can come and who can leave. And that gives you real power.

In Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi talked about this in his chapter on “Be A Conference Commando” where he suggested tools to effectively network at a conference. One of his tactics was to volunteer your time to help-out the conference organizers in any way possible. Being part of the infrastructure gives you access to privileged information, and gets you access to the speakers as well as knowledge of private round-tables and VIP events. It also gives you the power to share those insider-parties with your network and decide who can come-and-go, which makes you of-value, giving you more opportunities to pay-it-forward with people who want to be there.

Another great example is a friend of mine, who volunteers his time with the alumni recruiting team for his school. He was a recent college graduate, and the recruiter for his school had an alumni recruiting team – essentially a small group of young alums who were willing to help the recruiter extend his network on campus. My friend volunteered his time to help, to fly-out to recruit, and worked-hard to pass along good candidates and cultivate a relationship with the recruiter. The recruiter, in turn, gave him credibility with his college network, because he had insider information into the recruiting process, and became a resource for anyone at his alma mater seeking a job with Microsoft. By putting himself at the center of a key piece of infrastructure, he had access to information and insight that both the recruiter and his friends back on-campus valued.

One of the reasons that I’m a part of NetIP is that I love organizing things. I love creating something that other attend, I love having a cause to fight for. At my most social, senior year of college, I actually wasn’t working for any organizations, so it’s easy to think that I was at my most social that year simply because I was dumping time into being social. But the truth is I had a cause my senior year too – it was planning all the social events for my circle of friends, and making the most of senior year. It is that desire to organize that really was my love throughout college, and, in retrospect, that is what propelled me to such great social heights. But when I moved to Seattle, I decided to focus all my energy on work, fearing that I would spend too much time on extra-currics, as I did in college. That fear has limited my growth here. it made me weak. It made me less-social, it limited my capacity to network -that which had always been my strength. Which is why 8 months ago I decided it was finally time to stop living in fear – to embrace that which I love – and that’s why I joined the board of NetIP.

5. Always Be Closing

The ABC’s of selling are “Always Be Closing” – a famous line from Glengary Glen Ross – a movie about sales people – a sort-of predecessor to Boiler Room, if you’ve seen that. The concept that I discovered from my own job searches and watching others over the past three years is that it’s not enough to just have a network of people. You have to make those people actionable. You have “operationalize your assets” as they might say in the military. Don’t hate me, but perhaps it might be useful to think of networking the way you would think about dating women:

The average American will hold 10+ jobs in their lifetime. That means you’re not married to your job – if anything you’re casually dating it until a more attractive one comes along. And what’s your tolerance for being single – without a job? A few months at most?

This is what I used to think: “I know people, and people know me, so when I need a job, I’ll ask around and find one.” This is naïve and stupid. You never know when you’ll come home and the locks are changed. And on that day, you need to be – what? A few months? – away from having a new girl? The truth is that you need to be looking for a new girl even when you don’t want a new girl. The truth is that you need to be constantly evaluating your market value, constantly be invest in yourself, constantly be flirting with new opportunities, constantly be asking jobs out on dates, and trying to take them home, so that the day you actually want to close a deal, you’re already 80% of the way there. In effect: always be closing.

So those are my tips. Start by building a personal brand, use pay-it-forward tactics to be operationalize your assets and grow your network, use small group interaction to convert acquaintances into relationships, build and own infrastructure that others find value in, so that you become a connector, and always, always, always be closing. Hope this was useful.

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