I have learned some tough lessons in life.  One is that if you let your relationships go stale, they wont be there for you in the future.  When I came to Minnesota in 1999, I had already learned that lesson and decided to do all I could to make connections and relationships here.  What my grandmother would call “putting down roots.”  Today, I laugh that I can attend a (really lousy) Twins game last night and run into a number of people I know just walking the stadium corridors.  How did it happen?  I follow some basic networking rules:

    Rule #1: Make the decision to prioritize Networking. Too often the only time you reach out to your network is when you need something.  That is NOT the time to finally get in touch.  Sure, your job consumes you.  I know.  But reach out regularly and you will find people around you whenever you need them.  If you are left-brained, use a system of placing people in the monthly/quarterly/annual contact list.  Then get those names and contacts into your calendar system.  Yes, you must put your mom onto the monthly list.  But so should close friends from old companies and recent co-workers. Even a phone call or email sending them a link to a relevant topic counts.  Make sure they know you think of them.  Most people fall into the quarterly list.  It is easiest to find common groups and to network as a group: organize an after hours get together, host several couples at once for dinner, find a group to go to a concert or dinner together, host an ice cream party and include the kids.  The once-a-year group should get birthday cards, a holiday note or an email on the anniversary of a significant event (“Can you believe its been 4 years since we completed the ABC Project?!)  Don’t say you don’t have the time. In all honesty, you just haven’t made it a priority and a system to help you.  I just solved part of that for you!

    Rule #2: Listen, Contribute and Follow up.  You set up a lunch with a colleague you have been meaning to get to know better.  Congratulations!  Come prepared with some opening questions to get them talking: How did they get their job?  What challenges did they think they would have then and what ones do they really have now?  What do they think is critical to succeed?  These should get the ball rolling.  Actively listen.  Look them in the eye. Nod. Raise an eyebrow when you want to hear more.  Either bring something you think will be of interest to them (“I just saw this article on Italian gellaterias growing in the U.S.”) or make a mental note to send them something afterward that would be relevant.  Make Follow Up an focused responsibility.  If you said you would send them something or look something up for them, Do It.  In any case show interest and concern for the person and let them know your time together was meaningful. It can be as simple as a note saying the conversation was great and a suggestion to get together again in the future.

    Rule #3: Be Discrete.  Avoid a reputation for gossiping or your network will dwindle quickly and not be the professional support and guidance you are looking for at all.  People will value their time talking with you if they know they can discuss even sensitive items with you and you will be a Fort Knox with with their concerns.  Learn to graciously turn away people seeking “dirt” by saying things like “Oh, I don’t want to talk about Susie or Marketing.  Tell me what is new with you.”

    Rule #4: Be Kind. I mean this in two ways.  Be nice to people like wait staff, janitors and receptionists.  It matters and is one of the prime ways people evaluate whether or not you are well bred. The other way is to be kind with your time.  Be generous in giving time to people who may not be able to “help you” but may need some guidance and advice from your experience.  These folks may be tiresome at times because the career challenges they face are ones you may have decided on years ago or they mean very little to you.  Make time to listen and you will be surprised at the impact you can have on other people.

    Rule #5: Be Prepared. You never know when or where you will meet the next person who could change everything. Have a stash of business cards in your wallet, glove box and laptop bag.  I have a friend who includes her business card in every thank you note and piece of correspondence I have received from her over the years. Overkill? Maybe.  But she is always prepared and is the single most networked woman I know in the Twin Cities.  Keep your head up and eyes open to the people around you.  Have your personal and professional elevator speech ready.  Know how to make small talk and ask questions to get people to talk about themselves.

    For a great interactive web experience and to get some more ideas, check out http://litemind.com/mindmaps/never-eat-alone/ It is a lot of fun and summarizes even more ideas from the Keith Ferrazzi book “Never Eat Alone and Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time.”