Peer networking 101: Your iPhone or BlackBerry is not your friend

Complete coverage: Computerworld P100

Conference-goers typically say that the No.1 or No.2 reason they go to conferences is for networking with other people. Yet, today, many attendees are heads-down checking their e-mail on a smartphone. Hardly a way to make connections with other human beings.

"Your iPhone or BlackBerry is not your friend," said Thom Singer, author of "The ABC's of Networking." Checking e-mail is OK, but do it in some nook or corridor away from other people. The heads-down e-mail check is a visual cue that you're unapproachable -- the kiss of death for networking. And checking the device every few minutes becomes a crutch for the introverts among us.

Singer spoke at the outset of the Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders conference in Palm Desert, Calif., this week. He defined networking as "making real, long-term connections with the right people and forging mutually beneficial relationships that lead you both to high levels of success."

It's not just for job-hunting. (In fact, that's too late.) Singer declared that "all opportunities in life come from people" and you want to "position yourself as one of the people it's easy to build a relationship with." This sort of networking could be the way you find a new employee, learn a peer's technique for solving a work problem, find a new doctor, improve relations with other departments at your current job, or (yes) possibly find a new job. If there's a slogan here, it's "Networking: Your career depends on it."

Think about it: Your company made an investment to have you go to the conference. Are you failing to maximize that investment?

The fundamental principles of this sort of networking appear to be: Make an effort to connect with strangers. Cultivate an interest in other people's interests. And be approachable.

Singer offered some additional tips for being approachable:

  • Don't sit or congregate with co-workers and long-time friends. Challenge yourself to meet someone new at every break, meal and event.
  • Smile at others. Have your name tag visible (as an easy conversation-starter).
  • When in a little group chatting, leave an opening in the circle that provides a visual cue that your "cluster" is approachable -- you'd let someone slip in.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear Singer say that introverts can be better networkers than extroverts. Why? Because introverts are better listeners. The goal is to find out the other person's interests, not talk a lot about yourself. In fact, Singer disparaged the classic advice about having a canned "elevator speech" about yourself, because few people really want to hear it.

Where it all breaks down is when you get back from the event and fail to follow-up. What do you do with all those business cards you collected? Singer says you don't have to follow-up with everyone -- just the folks with whom you felt some solid connection or shared interest -- but you should follow-up (selectively) within two weeks of the event. Discover their "online presence" (e.g., LinkedIn) -- but don't link up too quickly. Find ways to share information they'd find interesting (now that you know their interests); celebrate successes or milestones; and in tough times, let them know you care.

People do business with people they know, like and trust, Singer said. It's a process, moving from knowing to liking to trusting. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can help a little with the "knowing" part, but the other two are totally up to you.

Related: Schmoozing 101: Tips for shy techies

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