I am currently teaching a course in the Mohawk College and CARA Research Administration Certificate program. As part of this, I’ve been writing essays around each week’s discussion topic, in response to the discussions and reflections by the students. The next of these is on the topic of the stakeholder categories, prioritization, communications and understanding requirements and expectations.
I was intrigued to read this article, as I'm always on the lookout for ways to build on strengths but also to understand and mitigate weaknesses. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing - strengths can become overwhelming if applied incorrectly or overdone. By developing complementary skills, you can work towards balancing strengths in ways that enable you and your teams to be highly effective and keep people engaged and performing.
Scenario: you're at a conference event, and you find yourself seated next to someone you don't know. You introduce yourself and go through the usual back and forth. "What do you do?", "How long have you been with the company?", "Where did you go to school?" And then...awkward silence.
At this point, the default actions are a) turn to someone else and repeat the exercise, b) take out your phone to check your messages (or send out a distress signal), or c) pretend to see someone you do know and move. None of these are great, or effective networking.
Often when we're first introduced to someone, the standard questions seem like the important pieces of information we'll need to know or remember (even if we probably won't). They seem informative and safe, likely because they are the questions we're prepared to answer ourselves. They are the verbal equivalent of exchanging LinkedIn profiles, and don't tell us much more than the statistics of our new contact. They are also (likely) not very memorable, and so a few hours or weeks later when we meet the same person, we may struggle with remembering those mundane details.
Behold a solution. This great little primer on networking and starting a meaningful conversation with a new contact. These outside-the-box suggestions for questions work because they are NOT mundane. You can start with the softball ordinary ones but adding a few of these to your roster will help when the normal pleasantries don't succeed in breaking the ice, or when you need to occupy some additional time.
I especially like, "What are you looking forward to?" This open-ended, forward-looking question can be interpreted as being about the conference event you're at, individual work goals, or life in general, so can open up a lot of areas of dialogue and give you some insight into someone's focus and priorities. Similarly, “What excites you right now?” can fulfill a similar purpose.
While I’m supportive of this approach to unusual questions, I would be wary about getting too personal too quickly. “What do you do for fun?” can sound a bit like a pick-up line rather than a work-appropriate conversation, and “Who’s your favourite superhero?” might be seen as flippant or juvenile, depending on the venue and audience (whom you don’t yet know well or at all). Maybe save these ones for a follow-up meeting.
As always, you should be prepared to answer the same question back, so think about how you will answer these if asked. You don’t have to have a speech memorized but do give some thought to what you might say. Remember that conversations always have two sides, so you should expect to participate beyond asking interesting questions.
Because you won't always be able to start with, "I love your hat!"
I found this book after seeing a Facebook post about the section on hyperbaton (defying the logical/grammatical order of words in a sentence). Hyperbaton covers three areas: prepositions (Shut up!), vowel order (tic-tac-toe), and word order (esp. adjectives and adjective-noun). This last one we all know but likely were never taught directly – it’s just such an ingrained part of the English language that we only recognize it when it’s broken. Adjective order follows this rule: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, noun. In hyperbaton, you deliberately muck that up to make a phrase that gets attention (for better or worse (a merism and an antithesis)): large, blue sweater makes sense, but blue, large sweater sounds weird.
In Part 1 of this blog series, I provided some guidance based on my own networking experience, and then provided a real-life summary of my application of purposeful networking in Part 2. Now, I’ll go through some of what NOT to do when networking.
An inspiration for this series was the book “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty”, a good book for those who need guidance or reminders about purposeful networking. The “well” is a great symbol for a network – a tool that provides you with access to a valuable resource. But like any tool, how you use it is important for making it work. Some things that can make it less than useful:
Digging your well in the wrong place: your networking efforts cannot be effective if you’re going to events or connecting with people without any basis for connection. If you want to build your network with purpose, start in places and with people where the connections will be meaningful.
Water with no well: it’s not enough just to make connections; you have to be able to maintain them, linking them in to the rest of your network. If you meet new people, then don’t follow-up with them in any meaningful way, you may find that you have met a lot of people, but don’t know any of them.
A well with no water: part of keeping your network purposeful and active is continuing to grow it and keeping people engaged with it. You might have a kick-ass website or LinkedIn page, but if no one ever connects with it, it’s not serving it’s purpose.
Water in the well but no bucket: it might be a great well, with lovely water, but if you can’t get anything out of it, it’s not very useful. How do you get things out of your network if there’s no way to interact with it? Make sure you have a good mechanism for interacting. (Aside – this is a problem with my current website platform – not a very good bucket.)
A well that you keep to yourself: as described earlier, your network needs to be able to grow, and works best when those in your network can also be part of each other’s networks. Your network needs to open and accessible to those within it, and to others who may want to connect with it. This doesn’t mean it’s completely open (you don’t want it to dry up), so having some controlled access is okay. After all, this is purposeful networking, not name collecting.
A well that’s too big (too much work to maintain) or too small (not enough water to keep you hydrated): as with other things, the Goldilocks Principle applies here – your network should be just the right size for you. As big as makes sense for your purpose, small enough that you can still maintain its purpose.
So what are some tools to build your well? I use a few social media platforms, but I try to be careful in using them for what I consider their purpose. I use Facebook to connect with friends and family; because I consider that to be more personal, I limit the number of connections I have (99 friends), and take care with my security settings to keep it that way. I use Twitter less frequently, mostly for quick distribution of things I think others might be interested in, to maintain a presence in that platform, and for some self-promotion. I also maintain two websites: robynroscoe.com is for stuff about me, and lyricmgmt.com is specifically about my company and its services; I maintain social media accounts for both of these, to extend their reach and prevent cyber-squatting.
The platform I recommend most for networking for work and career is LinkedIn. A very quick bit of online research showed me that there are few alternatives that offer the same functionality as LinkedIn (and several of the ones I tried were actually no longer active – wells that have dried up)[i]. I use LinkedIn to stay connected with professional colleagues: former and current co-workers, new connections from meetings and conferences, mentors and mentees. As such, my LinkedIn network is much larger (474 connections) than my Facebook one. I also use the platform market myself (my blog posts) and my connections (sharing and liking posts by others), which is a great way to add value to your network and give it purpose: people can see that it is valuable to be connected to you if you help get their messages out to a broader audience (your network) and if you post things that are generally of interest to your connections.
An underutilized feature of LinkedIn is the Recommendations section. You can ask people in your network to write a recommendation for you, and it will be posted on your page for others to see. Like your connections, recommendations should be real and meaningful. They should describe something real – a past project, a previous job – and be clear about the connection between you and the writer. The Skills Endorsement lists can also be useful, but can get less so if your lists are too long; again, make sure these are real and meaningful.
LinkedIn is a platform for professional interactions, so it’s not the place for recipes, quizzes, vacation photos, or political rants. While you may have close relationships with some of your LinkedIn contacts, save your more personal sharing with those people for another platform.
Whichever method or platform you choose, keep your networking purposeful. Ensure that your connections are meaningful and real. And remember: the purpose of the well is not to have a well. The purpose of the well is to have access to water when we need it.
[i] ResearchGate is an alternative specific for scientific interactions. This may be appropriate for you if you’re building up a collaborator network or seeking work or connections in academia. I don’t know much about this platform, but if science is your bag, then perhaps check this out. www.researchgate.net.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.