Networking and Community Leadership

If you know anything about me, you know I am an engineer who evangelizes other techies about the absolute necessity and career potency of professional networking. A few months ago I was authoring a talk on that very topic, and I had a realization…but I’ll save that for the end. Read on.

In my presentation, I suggest that successful networkers exhibit certain qualities. Arguably one could list many more, but here are my top three:

  1. Be a servant (versus a self-servant)
  2. Be genuine
  3. Be approachable (versus aloof or pushy)

The first quality reflects priority. That is, successful networks first try to help the other person first. Learn about the person, their job, their ideas, their problems. Listen, ask questions, and attempt to benefit them, either by your own know-how, experiences, or by making relevant introductions to people you know. This selfless servant-first attitude will make a positive first and lasting impression, and often result in the other person wanting to learn more about you and reciprocate.

The second quality is about personal presentation. Some people I’ve met network with a seemingly disingenuous personality. Some scurry about with a spray-and-pray strategy, passing out their business cards to nearly anyone with a pulse. Or, the person speaks as if he/she is trying to (a) make a sale, or (b) talk up how great he/she (or their company) is. Successful networkers are just there to build genuine relationships. Personally, I treat networking as making new friends, and (hopefully) the people I meet will feel treated as such.

The third quality reflects attitude. Approachability brings to mind being friendly, engaging, and easy to speak with one-on-one. Contrast that with an aloof individual who looks around or at the floor while talking, and is difficult to engage in meaningful conversation. Or, contrast with a pushy individual who dominates the situation. Either way, the other person (victim) is uncomfortable and probably searching for an exit.

Remember that realization I first mentioned? It was this: These very qualities of a successful networker are also the qualities of a successful community leader. The leader serves the community first, and is committed to seeing it succeed. The leader is genuine, with each member recognizing a direct, personal connection. And lastly, the leader is friendly and approachable by anyone in the community, or outside of the community who may wish to join.

A final thought: I think that successful networkers also become de facto community leaders to the people in their network…whether they know it or not.

The Biggest Loser

During my first eight years living in Austin, Texas, I managed an informal volleyball league that played one evening a week. Each Monday I emailed my volleyball contact list asking who wanted to play the following Tuesday evening. Over time, as first-time visitors turned into regulars, more people invited their friends, and steadily the email list grew. At the same time, those who became uninterested were pruned.

Some evenings we were starved for players, while others we had enough for three teams. Although the attendance varied week to week, there was one characteristic common to all attendees: Everyone came to play.

It’s all about the players

Now imagine if my volleyball email list grew such that people who were genuinely uninterested in playing volleyball were also on my list. What are some possible consequences?

  1. It would be difficult to tell by looking at the email list who genuinely valued playing in our volleyball league.
  2. The email list might grow to an unmanageable size, requiring extra cost/resources to maintain it.
  3. Uninterested people do not value or prioritize playing volleyball, so for a given week some will respond with “maybe”, when in fact they will be no-shows. This makes it very difficult to anticipate attendance week to week.
  4. If uninterested people happen to show up (e.g. to sit on the sidelines and just talk), they could be distracting to the people who are really there to play.

The problems, summarized: Difficulty gauging dedication, unmanageable growth, increase in unpredictable behavior, and more distractions to the dedicated.

However, is there an upside? SURE! Depending on the size of my league, I may be able to claim I run the largest volleyball league in Austin!

Is the distinction worth it?

When building a community, quality trumps quantity. Lauding that someone runs the biggest community of whatever doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy or successful community. Growing slowly and steadily with the right members engaged is the name of the game.

Million Dollar Ideas

Occasionally, I meet enthusiastic individuals planning to to make it big online, grasping for the elusive million dollar idea that will purportedly supply a lifetime of wealth.

It’s a trap

I can speak first hand. An alluring prospect, the chase for such ideas resulted in hunkering down and thinking really hard in some vein attempt to reach a focused state of idea enlightenment. The aftermath of this exercise has consistently been the same: a great deal of wheel-spinning and no ideas to show for it, or ideas that eventually wasted my time because nobody cared about them, including me.

The issue is an ordering problem. The assumption is that beginning with a killer idea will lead to passion. After all, if the idea will make you a millionaire, you would become passionate about it, right?

Don’t become passionate

Let me suggest an alternate approach. Begin with what you care about. Admittedly figuring this out can be as daunting an exercise as grasping for ideas, but it’s substantially more worthwhile. Obviously, you care about your friends and family, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What problems are you genuinely interested in seeing solved? Don’t get bogged down in the perceived enormity of them. How would the world/country/state/city/neighborhood/individuals improve if that problem was solved? What is your vision and the impact if you’re successful? Always start with what you care about, and maybe it will transform into your full-time occupation. As they say, do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Community building and entrepreneurship

People are much more likely to rally behind a vision than an idea. And YOU are much more likely to rally behind your own vision over the long haul, versus any million dollar idea. This is where community building meets entrepreneurship.

In my experience with Door64, finding and honing my vision and passion took the most time and effort. However, with that foundation laid, ideas now flow like water. With vision and passion, my brain spins 24/7 devising potential steps and paths to achieve them. Now the problem is filtering and prioritizing the ideas, not finding them. Each of ideas may not be worth a million dollars, but they are a means to an end — an end worth reaching.