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Building A Better Network

“You have an invitation to connect on LinkedIn.” Are there any words in the modern English language, so strung together in such a way, that inspire less joy or optimism? In a sea of data, we are drowning in useless information. A race to the top to build the most “impressive” network stocked with the highest-ranking corporate officers may be how folks are using LinkedIn, but that is not what a true professional network is, digital or otherwise.

In his article for Tech Crunch, Ashwin Ramasamy explains that today’s most popular professional networking tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter lack the tools necessary to provide the crucial insight that defines true networking. Relationships, not mere “connections,” are the beating heart of business, and that’s why the seven LinkedIn requests you’ve received while reading this are probably as functionally useless to you as spam mail.

Absent the existence of these tools (so far), Ramasamy offers some advice on how you can turn your connections into a true, beneficial professional network.

Relationships, Not “Connections”

“Connections” is a nebulous, sneaky word. A connection is something you have, not something you do. In the LinkedIn universe, a connection simply means, “you have a name on your profile that I recognize, click.” This is not a relationship in function or in spirit.

A relationship is an ongoing, businesslike exchange of expertise, service, and advice. A business relationship is “you can do something for me, I can do something for you.” Now, a misunderstanding of this principle is what leads to the proliferation of transparently sales-y messages and obvious, awkward marketing overtures. Relationships are two-way streets, and money is not always the currency being exchanged. Sometimes, a goodwill offering of free advice is the seed of a successful relationship. Sometimes, it’s a bit of pro bono prospecting when you come across an opportunity that may be good for one of your relationships. As Ramasamy puts it, “payment” in this context is made either in advance as something like “good karma,” or afterward in the form of an “I owe you one.”

Better Understand, Better Expand

As a professional, it’s on you to understand what you bring to the table, where your expertise lies, and what the business motivation is not only for yourself, but for those people in your network. If you know Lisa is organizing a conference on SEO improvement, go ahead and put her in touch with your relationship who is the CEO of a digital marketing agency. Know what Lisa wants to do, and offer her a way to do it.

Context, context, context is the key. Ramasamy tells the story of an SEO consultant who observed that he was conversing with a mutual connection, asking for SEO advice. Ramasamy observes, “The SEO consultant did not engineer his way into a conversation with me. Instead, he used the fact that we have this investor as a common connection and gathered from the status that I’m in the market for SEO services. He took advantage of the insight and reached out at the right time.”

It’s not enough to simply know to whom you are connected. You should understand why you are connected, what that connection is trying to accomplish in their daily duties, and have a keenly tuned ear to opportunities in the wind that can nurture and grow this relationship between you.

You Say Network, We Say Market

At the end of the day, the ideal professional network described above really functions as a micro-market, not any stilted concept of a “network.” A market is a place where goods and services are freely exchanged in kind, where one may not have the expertise required to perform a certain function, but they know of a qualified vendor who does. A market is about the services being rendered; a network is about the names on the door.

Until networks like LinkedIn develop the algorithms and insight necessary to alert users to time-sensitive business opportunities by skimming the recent activity of their connections, users will have to rely on the same professional skills that have dominated the business world for decades: wit, flexibility, professionalism, courtesy, skill, and interpersonal understanding.

Just because your network has “dot com” at the end of it doesn’t change a thing.

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