Building Networks, Online and Off

BusinessWeek

January 10, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

One of the most important skills for the professional of the future is networking. I had the opportunity to discuss this with Michael Dulworth, author of The Connect Effect: Building Strong Personal, Professional and Virtual Networks (Berrett-Koehler, January, 2008). He is also chief executive officer of Executive Development Networks, an organization that is focused on building cross-organizational connections in the HR world. Edited excerpts of a recent conversation follow:

MG: What’s different about networking today than before?

MD: The major difference today is how easy it is to communicate with your network via the Web. Some research has pointed out that the maximum number of active network members is [around] 150. But that research was done before the Internet. Today, it may be possible to establish and maintain a much larger network – maybe with thousands of members – because the technology is widely available to assist in managing a network contact base, plus e-mail makes it so easy to communicate actively with a large number of network members.

Are virtual networks the answer?

We can network with people throughout the world, 24/7, 365 days a year. Connectivity with people in our networks can be instantaneous via IM. We can also use global positioning to know where all network members are at a given point in time (if they provide us with this access). Social networks like MySpace (NWS), Facebook, and YouTube (GOOG) are becoming platforms for all types of social interaction. All of these innovations are radically changing the nature of networking, and many are extremely positive in nature.

However, many of the people I interviewed for my book talked about how depersonalizing these online forms of networking can be. They talked a lot about the need to establish a personal connection with network members face-to-face before online forms of networking can be effective. This may be a generational issue, however, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

If someone’s just no good at networking – or, like many folks, just hates it – can that person do anything to build confidence and see results from networking?

First of all, I say that everyone networks every day; they just may not think they do. Everyone talks daily to a family member, a work colleague, or a friend, and this is a form of networking. Additionally, most everyone meets someone new every day. The trick is to find a way to build and maintain your network that is comfortable for you.

And how do you do that?

This is where personality, style, and preferences come into play. If you’re an introvert, you may not like large gatherings. So meet a contact for lunch or go online and build and communicate with your network in this manner. Networking is not simply the act of going to social or “networking” events to try to meet new people. I’d argue that networking needs to be thought of more holistically and approached with a deliberate process mindset (i.e., “Have I networked today?”).

Second, I’d stress that most people’s networks are a lot better and stronger than they think. They’ve just not taken the time to map their network or to think about who the important contacts are within their network.

How do you suggest someone map and analyze their network?

In the book, I describe multiple ways to map and analyze your network. My favorite way is to describe your networking journey in a narrative summary while in parallel creating a network tree diagram. I describe how my network has formed since birth, starting with my parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends of the family, my friends, school friends, business associates, parents of my son’s friends, etc.

If this is done in chronological order, you can see how your network has formed over time and how it has grown, sometimes slowly and sometimes very quickly. I talk in the book about network accelerators, which are situations in which a network grows exponentially. In my case, going to college at the University of Michigan was a network accelerator. U of M has one of the largest alumni populations in the world, so by going to this university I’m able to tap into this incredible network.

In an earlier column, my friend David Ulrich discussed “leadership brand” (BusinessWeek.com, 10/02/07). From a broader perspective, what about the notion of the personal brand, and how does it work for networking?

A personal brand is just like a product brand. It is how you are viewed by your network member or a potential network member. What I talk about in the book is thinking about this idea in detail and describing (i.e., writing down) your brand identity. How do you want people to view you? What do you want people to remember you for? What picture are you trying to leave in people’s minds? The answers to these questions will help form a personal brand. It’s important to remember, however, that a personal brand is not hype. A personal brand has to be genuine; the real you will always come though in the end.

This makes a lot of sense to me and is something that I do myself and recommend for professionals in my field. Can you talk a little about the idea behind forming a personal board of directors?

A personal board of directors (PBOD) mirrors a company board of directors in its composition and intent. The idea is to select from your network a small number (5 to 10) of diverse people that you turn to for important advice, counsel, coaching. and mentoring. My PBOD includes my father, my best friend, a business colleague, a member of my company’s board, a cousin, my wife, an old boss, and my college roommate. The members of your PBOD care about you and are willing to help you with difficult personal problems, job and career challenges, etc., and provide sage advice and guidance.

What’s the future of networking?

I asked this question of the more than 30 people I interviewed for the book. They said that networking would become increasingly important in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and that reciprocity (the quid pro quo of networking) is the key to successful networking.

They also said that technology (mainly the Web and mobile devices) is going to transform networking in ways that we can’t imagine today and that the younger generations are going to change the world and solve many of mankind’s major dilemmas because of the networks they can form and leverage.

Thanks a lot, Mike. Speaking of networking, is it OK for our readers to contact you?

No problem. In the spirit of networking, your readers could try my Web site, www.executivenetworks.com, e-mail, mdulworth@executivenetworks.com, or phone, (415) 399-9797, ext. 803.