Tomorrow’s Networking Today
The desire to extend professional networks is growing as fast as unemployment figures—and all generations in the workforce are striving for unique, meaningful online and face-to-face encounters.
By Vanessa Richardson
In the St. Louis neighborhood of Central West End, 100 entrepreneurs gather monthly for professional networking, not just business card Go Fish—Dinner and Discussion at a hip vodka bar. After happy hour, a four-course meal is served at tables for four, and after each course, attendees move to a different table to ensure meeting a variety of people in true speed networking style.
After dessert comes the presentation, either a single speaker or a panel. At the latest event, it was a panel of three generations—a twentysomething Gen Yer, a Gen Xer in his mid-thirties and a Boomer in his 50s—discussing why they left corporate jobs to start their own businesses. Moderating the panel is Dinner and Discussion Creator David Siteman Garland, an entrepreneur who has developed several companies and currently hosts a local TV program The Rise to the Top, in which he advises on how to create successful businesses. He turned 25 in April.
“The theme for networking today is to get people moving,” Garland said. “There’s an ADD mentality during these events, so the key is to have everyone interact in the format they like, whether mingling in a big room or at a table for four.”
Forget about Rolodexes and business lunches. Today’s business people, all generations of them, use smart phones and social online media tools to network. Face-to-face meetings are still considered the best way to cement a relationship, but time constraints and a tough economy don’t always make these possible, inspiring effective networkers to use alternative ways to establish and effectively maintain relationships. As the Internet becomes a permanent fixture in our lives, social-networking Web sites are no longer unconventional; Gen Xers, Tweeners and Boomers all use tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
“Networking hasn’t changed over time, but the tools have,” Garland said.
He considers LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to be his primary marketing and advertising methods and claims a following of more than 300,000 people without having spent a dime on advertising.
But while the Internet has revolutionized how business is done, there’s still a generational gap with how well it does in creating long-lasting relationships.
Julia Barlow Sherlock is a Boomer, but as career services director at Central Michigan University, she says future generations are going to rely even more on technology for networking.
“Whereas Boomers tapped into family and faculty advisors during job hunts, college students now search through their avatars on Second Life and by tweeting. They’re creating networking capabilities as soon as they get a cell phone or computer. That’s how they want to communicate and stay in touch.”
The happy medium between tradition and technology is what’s necessary to achieve, though. Richard Guha, a former corporate executive who now runs consulting firm Max Brand Equity, says the magic is in knowing how to blend them effectively.
“I can have 15,000 friends on LinkedIn who I won’t know very well, then there’s my five golfing buddies who have little reach,” Guha said. “So I need to reach out to my concentric circles of close friends, acquaintances and LinkedIn connections in a way that is efficient. The goal with technology is making it effective for your networking needs and connections.”
While LinkedIn is considered an essential site to see and be seen on, many people consider it more a research platform than a networking site.
For example, Ephrain Peak, a 54-year-old software engineer in Tucson, Ariz., says he uses LinkedIn prominently for his job hunt, and that his methods work well for anyone looking for leads and industry connections.
“When I look at a connection, I see who he’s connected to and what degrees of separation I am away from those people,” Peak said.
Peak targets segments in the industry he’s pursuing, then targets interesting companies in those segments.
“Then I look at LinkedIn to see if I know anyone at those companies, or if I know people who know people there,” he said.
Peak is also active in LinkedIn groups, some of which are professional organizations in their own rights, complete with job listings that allow employment hunting in a less formal manner.
LinkedIn experts recommend that newcomers join LinkedIn groups focused on their specific industries, and also ask and answer questions on the LinkedIn Answers component to meet a wider swath of people.
Meeting professionals are also tiptoeing into Facebook as a place to get business done—typically a more casual place.
As deputy director of the office of strategic and innovative programs at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., Rachel Permuth-Levine creates large public health initiatives, meaning she also runs a lot of conferences and events. She uses LinkedIn to find health professionals to invite to events, but now she asks her interns to create Facebook pages to list event information and send to their friends.
Lorne Epstein, 43, is one entrepreneur trying to make Facebook business-friendly. A Washington, D.C.-based job recruiter, Epstein created a Facebook software tool called InSide Job that aims to help people find others who work at companies they’re interested in. An accountant with a job interview at IBM in New York can do a search for those terms and contact New York-based IBM staffers who pop up to ask them questions about the company.
An important aspect to social networking sites is the ability to actually communicate with influential people who can boost careers. One of Epstein’s “friends” is America Online co-founder Ted Leonsis.
“I’ve met him although he probably doesn’t remember me,” Epstein said. “But on Facebook, I’ve asked him questions, and he’s taken a look at InSide Job, so I had access to him in a way I wouldn’t offline.”
Epstein says most friends his age are on Facebook, and it’s not hard to find new ones in that age range. And initial meetings very often turn into something even more valuable—an ongoing chain of networking.
“If I meet five people in person and they all know a sixth person, chances are that sixth person and I will get connected on Facebook. That doesn’t always happen offline.”
He often meets people in person that he first met on Facebook, such as a woman he instantly recognized at a party from her Facebook photo.
“Facebook and face-to-face are now bleeding into each other,” he said.
While social media tools can get the word out fast about business opportunities, most people realize it won’t create the same type of relationships that can only be made face to face.
“Speed networking” is more common, especially among time-crunched professionals. While some rue the lack of time to make close connections, others say it’s worth taking what you can get.
“If you’ve found one good contact out of 12, then it was worth it,” said Molly Wendell, CEO of Executives Network, a consulting firm in Phoenix.
Fewer people can afford multi-day conferences and workshops, so more networking is being done closer to home. Also, more networking events are taking place to specifically help job-hunters find work and support them during their searches. Take Pink Slip Mixers, held routinely in hotels, bars and restaurants around California, founded by Edwin Duterte, a 39-year-old commercial real-estate banker in Los Angeles who got laid off in January 2008. After sending his resumé to banks for months with no luck, he decided to network on a larger scale and started the mixers last July. He offered different tables for specific industries, but Duterte wanted to focus on mixing traditional face-to-face techniques and new online media. He asks attendees to use Twitter feeds at the events and shows the tweets live on a big screen for all to see.
“I ask them to tweet out job requests for people they just met. It helps them build a relationship with one another because during their own search, if they find something that doesn’t fit their criteria, they can forward the info to the person they networked with.”
Now Duterte is trying to get corporate sponsorships, but he intends to keep mixers less formal than a job fair.
“It’s about being relaxed so recruiters see that job-seekers can be professional in a comfortable setting,” he said.
MeetUp.com encourages face-to-face events, organized by geography and industry. Drinks Above Tiffany’s, a Boston-based MeetUp.com group gathering operated by Diane Darling, author of The Networking Survival Guide, brings people together of all professions to practice networking. At the event, Darling delivers a five-minute talk—a recent one described how to use LinkedIn for networking.
“Ultimately, people go to networking events based on the quality of the people they’ll meet,” she said.
Even Garland, the in-your-face Gen Y entrepreneur, is offering cheap networking events, taking full advantage of tools such as Twitter.
“I just planned a tweet-up—I tweet other entrepreneurs to meet me at a coffee shop and just hang out,” Garland said. “People in this economy are still looking for business opportunities—it’s just the days of doing it at big networking galas are over for now.”
The mood at many gatherings can be impacted by current economic and employment fears, planners say.
“More people are just looking out for each other, asking me before an event, ‘Who are the recruiters? Who’s hiring?’ Helping others with job searches sometimes takes a back seat,” Duterte said.
Because people of all ages are looking for work, Gen Y may feel it’s harder to shine because of lesser job experience. As they rise through the ranks, the youngsters may clash with their elders when it comes to communication.
“Boomers still want the face-to-face because that’s what they’re used to,” said Connie Hinton, U.S. director of Business Networking International. “While Gen Y has no qualms with Web sites like GoToMeeting.com and videoconferencing.”
For now it’s wise not to text message a press release or event information to a group of Boomers—many don’t use their phones for that. Still, networking coaches report that their social-media networking workshops are packed with Boomers.
“When I did a recent seminar, 70 percent of the people were over 60,” Duterte said. “They wanted to know what Twitter was and how to get connected via cell phone, and many went to my next mixer.”
Duterte says Gen Yers and Boomers can learn much from each other.
“While Gen Y knows the social tools, its social skills aren’t as clean, so Boomers and Gen X could help Gen Y sharpen its personal networking skills.”
Still, organizations will have to adapt to Gen Yers’ methods as more enter the workforce.
“These kids will be making more influential and financial decisions, so if they know how to find stuff on Facebook, it makes sense to be where they are,” said Jason Alba, 35-year-old author of I’m On Facebook—Now What?
Lindsey Pollak, a 34-year-old Gen Y career consultant, recommends the elder generations take time to welcome twentysomethings into the networking ranks.
“It’s a myth that Gen Y only wants to communicate through technology. They appreciate the human touch but they do need to learn how to do it,” Pollak said. “I encourage older networkers to bring young people as their junior partners or mentorees to an event. Getting an invite makes them feel appreciated.”
While everyone agrees face-to-face is still the ultimate networking method, even that must be changed to suit the younger generation, says Misti Burmeister, author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies across Generations.
“The standard breakout and plenary sessions are going out of style. Think of new ways to get people of all ages interacting and in a dialogue. You need to ask, ‘How do I get them engaged and having fun?’ Events are not just about learning but having fun and building relationships. If you include young and seasoned professionals in the mix to generate ideas, the more fun they’ll have, the more they’ll learn from each other and the better their networking skills will be.” One+
VANESSA RICHARDSON is a freelance business and finance writer.
Pecha Kucha for the Future
Structured rapid-fire presentations that give each presenter the spotlight for six minutes and 40 seconds, the time needed to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each, that’s the essence of the Pecha Kucha style. Thus far, Pecha Kucha Night gatherings have trended to casual affairs in practice and promotion. In fact, Pecha Kucha (from the Japanese, roughly meaning “chit chat”) originated with creative professionals, such as artists and photographers searching for ways to share their work with a variety of others from ancillary disciplines. However, the 20x20 format is spreading to the professional world—more structured similar meet-up strategies include TED’s “Lighting Talk” and O’Reilly’s “Ignite”—leading to a revolutionary new type of networking.
The flexibility of Pecha Kucha-style events crosses paths with the unconference ideal—pending available space, interested presenters simply sign up to take the stage. Organized in more than 180 cities across six continents, Pecha Kucha is open, accessible and increasingly popular. March saw 51 official Pecha Kucha Night events with more than 10,000 attendees.
Industry professionals interested in hosting 20x20 format events such as these are advised to see this evolving beast in action—individual Pecha Kucha presentations can often be found on Youtube.com and pechakuchanight on Twitter provides a fountain of ongoing news, links and reviews. However, immersion is best: Visit Pecha-kucha.com and attend a local gathering to really see how the event plays out…and gauge it’s suitability for your audience.