Years before I even looked into the networking topic, I read this Buddhist advice that you should let go of everything and everything you truly need, will come back to you. What seemed like a very spiritual thought at the time has actually proven to be a very hands-on guideline for me. Focusing on what I can give others sets a completely different tone to any relationship. This already influences the first conversation I have with a person. It changes the way I listen and helps me implement strategy one for being interested in a conversation partner. See my previous post on listening skills.

Image CC BY SA 2.0 courtesy of Gideon Tsang, on Flickr

Status, Goal, Gap-to-close Mentality

I actually adapted a little project management model of status, goal, gap-to-close to how I go about conversations with people I just met. First I ask them where they stand. This could be concerning the event “How do you like it so far?” or “Did you have a smooth journey to come here?” or it could be about their current job situation “People have to deal with many demands at work today. Do you experience that, too?”. Then (depending on their answers, of course) I ask them, where they want to go. For example “What are your expectations for this conference?” or “That sounds like a very tough work environment. How do you cope with so much stress?”. And finally I attempt to come up with something helpful for their goal. I usually make that very explicit, so that the other person definitely knows my intention, even if my suggestion doesn’t fully hit the mark. “Oh, you want to learn about semantic web. I am just trying remember what I read in the program booklet – isn’t there a speech about that later?” or “Yeah, resilience seems to be the key. I don’t know much about that concept, but a friend just recommended a book about it to me. Would you like me to find out the title for you?”. Now, these are very, very condensed versions of conversations I have in that format. And very often they do not end in an answer, but actually in a question that the other person and I ponder about. But networking questions are a great motor in moving forward, so for me that is a very productive outcome of a conversation. Additionally it makes me feel good about the interaction. And all that is a wonderful base for a longer relationship with a potential network partner.

Generosity: Karma or Simply Positive Atmosphere in a Network?

A few years ago I was asked to join a small, formal consulting network to pitch in my expertise in the area of innovation culture. This seemed like a very smart thing to do, as the six of us would all contribute our individual competence and thereby have a much broader field we could cover. At some point down the lane I began to feel like I was investing too much. Or rather, that some partners in the pool were investing a lot less than others. Especially the initiator of this network seemed to think that she could earn money for having had the idea of this association (and, yes, she also maintained the website and tried to find new members for the pool). When she started having all of us sign very strict contracts about commissions and rights to contact customers, it dawned on me that this was not the atmosphere I wanted to work in.

Now, don’t get me wrong: contracts and agreements are a good thing and can help networks along very well (especially formalized ones). But in this case the tone wasn’t right. It became obvious that she was focusing on harvesting before she invested fertilizer and let things grow a little. To absolve her a bit: she did invest money in building this network and was probably starting to run a tad low, which put pressure on her. And so she fell into the trap of passing that pressure on and trying to squeeze some profit out of the network members. You can probably imagine that this didn’t go down too well. The members quit one by one and went down their own paths. Which is sad, because the idea itself of joining forces was a great one. Just her constructive mindset was lost somewhere on the way. And I believe she sent out the wrong message in her formal network, and this bad Karma broke her neck.

Generosity Produces Win-Win-Win

The most fruitful networking partnerships I have, developed quite differently: both sides decide we want to keep in touch and then some. In one setting this lead to having an idea together that we wanted to pursue, a specific product that involved both our competencies. And both sides contributed their bit. Not with the end in mind, but simply because we were inspired to collaborate. We both learned a lot and both had phases when one objectively contributed more than the other. But it always panned out over time. And then a potential client came our way and we were able to deliver our product together.

Networking Is Not about Instant Gratification

In another instance I helped out a person interested in an education program I was attending. I didn’t think about it, as it seemed the natural thing to do. A few years down the line we ended up collaborating quite closely – the other person was so good at sales that he could not fulfill all the projects he wanted to. I was glad for the opportunities… So sometimes there are network connections that lie dormant for a long time before they are reactivated. And sometimes they just fade – which is fine, too, as long as both sides feel all was handled fair and square.

Generosity Is Connective Glue

Bottom line for me: adopting a generosity mindset is a great way to connect and provides lots of positive energy. For that I do not always have to have “all the answers” or solutions, finding questions the other person and I have in common can be just as fruitful. Yet, when I feel like energy (ideas, favors, contributions, time…) is drained from me, I take a close look, to make sure I want to continue this relationship. Network partners should not be chosen to be “profitable”, but they do have to feel right.