If you were asked to take each person you know and categorize them under just one label: colleague, friend, relative, or associate—could you? If you answered “yes,” your social graph isn’t quite social enough. Social graphs aren’t about contacts, categories, or caliber—they’re about relationships.
We’ve all met people who pride themselves on their networking cred. They boast about their LinkedIn contacts and brandish thousands ofbusiness cards at every conference. But those aren’t genuine relationships—they’re just contacts.
The human brain is a network of neural activity; connections become stronger the more they get used. Similarly, social networks need activity to keep from becoming stale. To build relationships—not just contacts—as you meet new people act with sincerity and generosity. This approach will allow you to build trust and mutual respect and ultimately maintain and strengthen friendships over time.
Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone
You’ve probably heard the expression about finding love where you least expect it. Business works the same way. Sure, it’s easier to strike up a conversation with somebody who works at your same company, lives in your city, or is part of your industry. But business requires us to interact with people of all stripes and industries—a marketing company needs technological tools, and a tech company needs salespeople, and so on.
I hardly expected to meet my company’s executive coach while waiting in line for a cab, but that’s exactly what happened. After stepping off a plane in Austin, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler named Bryan Neuberg while waiting for a taxi. I discovered we were both from San Francisco and that he ran an executive coaching firm for dozens of startups. After arriving back home, we met again, clicked, and began working together.
We think of conferences as places to promote our products, but most people overlook the opportunity to promote themselves. I have been offered three different job opportunities at SXSW Interactive alone—all generated from exhibiting a genuine interest in others and being open to meeting new people. People are truly the vehicles for new opportunities. To foster strong relationships, you need to step out of your comfort zone—and beyond your social graph—to be greeted by the unexpected.
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Be Social With Social Media
Networking wisdom leads us to believe social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn are making the world a small, more connected place. And they are—sort of.
Too many people use tools like LinkedIn only to reach out in their time of need. Saying, “Hey, I could use your help” to somebody you handed a business card to years ago isn’t likely to work. Instead, forge genuine relationships—take a real interest in others and offer help where you can—and you’ll find they are much more willing to lend you a hand when you need it.
When forging a new relationship, remember that it’s better to give than receive: “Sure, there’s something you can do for me. But what about what I can do for you?” Many of my close friends are people I’ve met at conferences because I always begin each conversation without ulterior motives. It’s friends who will invite you to exclusive events like the Mai Tai Global. And it’s events like these where creative juices really flow.
Ask for Introductions (From the Right People)
Neural networks generate around nodes—hubs of connectivity. In a similar manner, business networks grow via hyper-connectors. The key is to figure out who the hyper-connectors and how they can open new channels of communication for you.
Node is called Node for a reason: We’re mapping all the nodes on the web and we believe in the power of finding the right connector to grow your graph in the right direction. Instead of haphazardly emailing executives at a major company, look for somebody who can introduce you that has the best strength of connection between you both.
Thousands of people every day want to meet with executives at brands like Google and YouTube, but executives simply don’t have the time to meet that demand. One way to get past that initial hurdle is to find a “gatekeeper” to vet both parties, and have him or her make an introduction. Your interaction will go more smoothly, and the executive won’t feel as if you’re wasting his or her time because you’ve been vetted by a trusted colleague.
Businesses need a “virtuous mix” of employees, personalities, and minds to succeed. To maximize your connectivity, locate a gatekeeper and ask for introductions to those you’d like to meet and ensure you provide plenty of context as to how the other party will benefit.
Look for Friends, not Dollars
As someone who started a business from scratch, I know how much skill and hard work is needed to make a company successful. But you can’t do it alone. You need friends — people who appreciate you as a person and support your efforts.
That means going into each conference event or networking opportunity with an upbeat, positive, and genuine mindset. It’s probably no coincidence that the global CES, a giant interactive exhibit of all things consumer technology, is hosted every year in Las Vegas, essentially a playground for adults. Successful business leaders know the key to company—and personal—growth is to approach people as friends, not tools to be used. In fact, I met one of my dear friends at CES. We spent much of our time at the conference together; we became so close that she even attended my wedding.
Branch Out in Business
Moving beyond your social graph is like the dating game: You probably wouldn’t just work your way around your circle of immediate friends until you found Mr. or Ms. Right. You’d try a new bar, a new gym, or a new social group.
So why not do the same in business? To move your company forward, you need to explore beyond the circles you’ve already networked with. Be genuine, be friendly, and remember that business isn’t about contacts—it’s about forging relationships and learning and growing through them with time.