I Don’t Carry a Bag: Networking Isn’t About Collecting Business Cards

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City If, like me, you spend a lot of time at trade, industry, and business networking events, you’ve probably accumulated a thick stack of business cards and a robust number of LinkedIn contacts. Or maybe you’re one of those people who can instantly turn any chance encounter into an opportunity to engage in a conversation that leads to sharing professional pursuits (an almost uniquely American phenomenon, I’m told).

Either way, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain a meaningful dialogue with every single person in your Rolodex. Very few people who don’t have the staff to handle such matters have that kind of time.

Of all those names and faces that populate our professional lives, most — including many that have all the hallmarks of becoming valuable, long-term relationships  — end up lost in the multitude. As the number of our contacts grows over time, the prospect of taking action on each promising introduction becomes more and more daunting.

What can be done to change the dynamic? How do you turn the networking game from one of accumulating as many business cards as possible to one that results in a higher percentage of solid, mutually beneficial contacts?

Networking takes time and effort; it takes a willingness to ask, “What can I do to help you?” It also takes commitment to actually following through on the answer to this question. And it takes the ability to make quick calculations about which of the people you meet are worth your valuable time and attention.

For me, it is often a simple matter of deciding if I like you. That may sound ruthless, but I don’t have time to suffer fools — and neither do you.

There are far too many people out there who will gladly take whatever you have to give without a genuine thought of returning the favor. Would you prefer to strike up a relationship with that guy, or would you rather accumulate a network of people who make your day enjoyable? Me too.

So, when I’m awkwardly hanging out by the coffee urn, or sticking my hand out to introduce myself just as you’ve put a forkful of salad into your mouth, how you respond is going to tell me a lot — maybe all I need to know.

DrinkIf you laugh (appropriately) at my opening line, we’re off to a good start. If you nod and grunt out an “uh-huh” while scrolling through your iPhone, or if you immediately start looking past me for a better prospect, you’re wasting my time. I don’t want to invest in anyone whose body language tells me that they think I’m beneath them.

On the other hand, if you treat me with simple grace and human dignity, there’s a good chance I’ll knock down a wall for you one day. Maybe not the next day, but as the relationship develops and we both earn the right, that day will come.

Networking does not come naturally to me, and so I’ve developed a few ways to overcome my tendency toward introversion. I set appointments for myself to follow-up with people and get updates on how a certain thing we previously discussed is working out, or I extend an invitation for coffee or cocktails. Maybe I’ve read an article that I can share. If there’s chemistry, eventually those prompts will not be needed and the relationship will grow on its own.

I don’t carry a bag. I don’t have a quota, but I know that good things happen in business when our relationships go beyond the superficial. And if all that comes of this approach is you’ve made more friends, well, that’s not a bad result.

By Mike Spinney