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Creating a Valuable Network of Business Relationships

December 1, 2009Sparxoo

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By David Capece, Managing Partner

I recently read a post about the growth of the human network which raises environmental concerns, and was struck by the following statement:

“We all exist within this complex network of human development.  Today, the human network’s reach and complexity have nearly exceeded our ability to understand what we are creating and how it affects us.”

We have emerged from a period of excess and frivolity, where objects and things were a diversion from meaningful relationships.   While money and assets have their place in society, we are increasingly focusing on the bond with fellow humans.  We all know about the growth of Facebook which reached 300 million users.  At the next level down, LinkedIn recently surpassed the 50 million mark and is still growing.  In LinkedIn, new members can sign up and race to establish 500 connections.  And while we certainly encourage you to establish 500 connections on LinkedIn, we ask you to take a step back and think about the bigger picture in navigating the complex network of relationships.

Consider your long-term relationship building aspirations.  Do you want to become a recognized figure among a tight knit community (think Town Council or Industry Advisory Board), or do you want to be a connector of ideas, money and people (think venture capitalist)?  Once you’ve set the big picture, take a look at your current network, and set some very specific goals.

It wasn’t long ago that I was in business school and preparing to launch my career as a newly minted Wharton MBA.  At the time, I aspired to build management experience in sports and media, with a specific target of working at ESPN.  When I started business school, I knew zero people at ESPN.  By the time I graduated, I had spoken to over 50 ESPN employees including ESPN’s Chief Marketing Officer and several business unit leaders, and I successfully landed a great job that was the envy of all my friends.

It may seem difficult to break into an organization, but I broke it down into its simplest parts.  The first step was to gain access into the organization, which I did by going online and tapping into Wharton’s alumni network.  Yes, even before LinkedIn or Facebook were founded, there were still ways to network and connect with others.  I was able to make these new virtual contacts more tangible by meeting for coffee.  From there, I was able to gain referrals to their peers at ESPN and eventually I was able to set up a whole day of meetings at ESPN’s offices.  As I continued to ask questions and meet more people, the network expanded exponentially.  Once I started working at ESPN, I took the same approach to meet as many people as possible.  My network has continued to expand as some of those contacts have left to become leaders at other organizations.

While I am a big fan of LinkedIn, it’s critical to understand that LinkedIn is not a substitute for human connection.  LinkedIn and other social networks help you more easily navigate to like-minded professionals.  However, you still need to activate these relationships.  Richie Hecker, who blogs at Bootsrapper.com says, “I have a policy that I will meet and buy anyone a cup of coffee that asks to meet with me and try to help them if I can. I give away a lot of free ideas and advice and make a lot of introductions for people.”

Focus on depth and quality of relationships to build a strong network over time.  It’s not enough that people are aware of you, they need to have some level of familiarity and interaction with you so that you actually have mindshare with them.  You’ll know that your network is becoming valuable when you hear someone say, “What a small world, I was just talking about you with so-and-so.”  Just make sure that what they are saying in positive.  Next time you check LinkedIn, check to see the recommendations, as this a measure of relationship strength.

Image by B S K from Stock.Xchng