The world is a small place. The theory of six degrees of separation (1) explains that a chain of social connections can connect any two people within six links, highlighting the power of networking. Meeting new people and expanding your network exposes you to new ideas. Even the most creative minds cannot generate new ideas and concepts out of nothing. Talking to people and listening to their experiences challenges personal thought. Networking also bolsters job security and generates opportunities. The common phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know” applies here.
The personal benefits of networking should not be the sole reason you reach out to others. Those who seek connections for their own self-interest squander the opportunity to cultivate deeper connections. Networking is an opportunity to build and maintain mutually beneficial friendships.
Plant the seeds
Think of cultivating your network like taking care of a garden. Plants need water and fertilizer to stay healthy. In the same way, friendships need communication and support. Both gardening and networking require continuous work.
Good gardeners prepare their garden bed with plants they want to thrive. You also should handpick the friendships you want to foster. Friendships require different levels of care. Some friendships need more communication, while others need very little.
Certain plants and people do not interact well with others. The roots of one plant may take nutrients in the soil from another. Good gardeners manage their plantings to mitigate disharmony, support flowering, and highlight their beauty. You must also manage your friendships. Certain connections may not get along well, and you should consider this when planning any events or get-togethers. Group your friendships to mitigate discord, support their growth, and bring out the best in them.
Have the right tools
Before you begin cultivating your network, you need to gather the right tools. Plan when you want to plant your seeds. The chances you get to meet someone new are few and typically infrequent. Do not leave encounters to chance. Increase the number of personal encounters by creating new opportunities. Attend social events, meet up with friends who can connect you with others, and avoid procrastination that will cause you to miss opportunities.
Be aware and mindful of your network’s needs. Although you may want to talk to someone about the future market, he or she may not have the time to answer your questions. If you want people to respect your time, be respectful of their time as well. Nevertheless, stay confident (or at least act confident). Know who you are and what you have to offer. Do not undersell yourself and miss an opportunity; likewise, do not oversell yourself and make false promises.
Get your hands dirty
Now that you are prepared, the first step in gardening is breaking up the soil. Get your hands dirty by shaking some hands. Introduce yourself and ask about the person. If you do not know what to say, follow the acronym GOLF — geography, occupation, leisure, and family. Where did you go to school? What do you like about your job? What are your hobbies? Do you have any siblings? These are all great questions to move from acquaintances to friends.
Next, place a seed by making a connection. While asking questions, find commonalities and relate to the person by responding with your thoughts and experiences. The seed will take root, and a bond will form.
Sustain the seed’s growth by developing the friendship. Plants need continuous watering and nourishment to thrive. Establish a means of communication for future followups and conversations to nourish your friendships. The ideal timeframe for an initial followup is 12–24 hr after the encounter, while the interaction is fresh in your mind. Keep the followup brief by summarizing the conversation and opening the door to keep in contact.
Finally, record important facts of your friendship. Writing down key details of your conversation will help you remember them later. It will also help you prepare your follow-up message. To go a step further, set your next encounter to make cultivating your friendship easier.
Your connections need to grow to turn into friendships. New encounters and followups will help you determine how best to take care of your budding friendships and deepen the roots to help your network weather any storms. Weeds of conflict may appear and impede your friendships’ growth, but it is your job to tend to them.
Do not forget to occasionally show appreciation. People are giving you their time when you visit with them or they respond to your message. A small token of gratitude can go a long way.
Reap what you sow
Think of your network as a group of friends. Some will flourish if you visit them often. Some will naturally fade away. When you tend to your network, it will grow into something beautiful and fruitful. It can truly be one of the most rewarding aspects of your life.
1. Watts, D. J., “Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age,” W. W. Norton & Co., New York, NY (2003).
This article originally appeared in the YPOV column in the November 2019 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.