On my desk is a decorative box that's full to the top with business cards. I've collected them at casual encounters, ASJA conferences, and speaking engagements over the past several months. I have a business card scanner, mobile business card application, and a human assistant, any of which could help me get those names into my contacts list. I haven't bothered because, deep down, I know most or all will come to nothing.
So I was more than intrigued to discover that consultant and author Andrew Sobel recommends in his new book "Power Relationships" that the best place for all those cards might be the circular file. His thesis is simple: When it comes to networking, quality trumps quantity.
"There is a penchant to meet lots and lots of people," he says. "It's fueled a bit by social media, where we're told we need large numbers of Twitter followers, followers of our blogs, LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends." In fact, he says, there are only a few professions where knowing many, many people in a superficial way can be an advantage. "Maybe if you're promoting a nightclub," he says.
For just about everyone else, he says, it's a different story. After interviewing hundreds of successful executives he found that most could identify 25 or perhaps 30 relationships that had made all the difference to their careers. And they recognized those key relationships right from the start.
That's led Sobel to recommend a different, and likely more effective approach to networking:
1. Figure out who matters most.
This group is what Sobel calls the "critical few." Whether a co-worker, customer, mentor, or someone who's helped you make valuable connections, these are the contacts whose presence in your life is clearly valuable to your career. "If I asked you to make a list of the 20 most important professional contacts in your life right now," he says. "It's those people."
Once you've identified your critical few, make sure to keep regular contact, he advises. "These aren't people you should just send a holiday card to," he says. "You should be talking two or three times a year. You should know what their interests are and follow up with them around those."
2. Pick your next tier.
This group might be 50 to 100 contacts, Sobel says. These are people who have perhaps helped you or have the potential to do so in the future, contacts you may not know well enough to socialize with. "I don't follow up with them with the same intensity," he says. "I make sure I'm sending my monthly newsletter, but I may also send some other things of interest. For instance, when I'm quoted in Inc.com, I may send a link to that."
3. Find easy ways to engage everyone else.
In Sobel's case, "everyone else" is about 10,000 people. He sends them his monthly newsletter, and at the end of the year, also provides an instructional video just for them.
4. If you want to connect with someone, find a way to help that person.
It's easy to assume that a wealthy and successful contact already has everything he or she desires and wants nothing from the likes of you. If you're thinking that way, get over it, Sobel advises.
It's always worth the trouble to find out a contact's desires and concerns. The chances are high that you'll be able to find something worthwhile you can offer. At one event, he recalls, he was introduced to a former CEO of Walmart, which he wasn't expecting. Left alone to chat, he soon learned that one of the CEO's family members suffered from a certain medical condition. Sobel's brother is an expert in this condition and was able to suggest some useful articles that he sent on to the Walmart CEO.
5. Be intriguing.
If you want to make a connection with a new contact, especially a very busy one, the quickest way is to arouse that person's curiosity with something unexpected. Sobel saw this demonstrated years ago when a friend of his met with an executive of a large telecommunications company. At the time, re-engineering was all the rage and that's what Sobel's friend had come to sell. But the telecom executive cut him off before he began, saying that the company had already engaged a high-profile firm and had its re-engineering well in hand.
Sobel's friend was quiet for a moment and then remarked, "We used to do re-engineering."
"The guy got upset," Sobel says with a chuckle. "It's good to get people emotionally engaged." The executive was now very much listening to whatever Sobel's friend had to say.
6. Think people, not positions.
"Everyone reading this knows people who are smart, ambitious, motivated, and interesting," Sobel says. "Some of those people, in eight or 10 years, are going to be influencers. They may even be CEOs."
It's a lot easier to get to know someone and form a connection early in that person's career, he explains. "It's not that easy to break into the inner circle of 50- or 60-year-old executives. It's a lot easier to build up that equity early. So think about who in your network seems to be going places and is really interesting and make a strong connection. Even if they don't become an influencer, it'll be an interesting relationship."
7. Give before you ask.
Recently, Sobel got a lengthy email from a business school classmate. "I hadn't heard from him in 30 years," he says. The email was a request that Sobel invest in a new venture--in fact, the entire business plan was contained in the body of the email. "He did not maintain a relationship with me, and he didn't evoke my curiosity," Sobel notes. "I think he failed in all his attempts to raise money."
Worst of all, the contact had committed the sin of asking for something without giving or offering anything, or even demonstrating any caring for Sobel at all. "Before you ask for something, make sure you've invested in that person," he says.
8. Be generous.
That doesn't mean you should only reach out to contacts or do things for them when you expect something in return. "You can't operate with the thought of reciprocity in mind," Sobel cautions. "If you go around with that mercenary attitude it will show, and people will think you're a self-interested schmuck."
Instead, he says, "You have to have a generous spirit. The greatest networkers I know genuinely like to help others. They're always doing it. And if they ever do need anything, people will fall over themselves to help them."
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