Of all the networking mistakes, forgetting a connection’s name is by far the most awkward. If you’ve ever gone to a business function, you’ve probably experienced the embarrassment firsthand. The situation often starts well enough; a friendly and vaguely-familiar guest comes up to your table and begins to chat. As the conversation wears on, you have the uncomfortable realization that you have met this person before. You frantically try to remember their name and background, even as you carefully make generic small talk and pretend to recall them as well as they clearly remember you. Eventually, though, the conversation inevitably grinds to a halt. The person’s smile dims as they realize that you don’t even know their name. They reintroduce themselves and politely excuse themselves, looking a little disappointed. The exchange is so embarrassing that you avoid them for the rest of the night. You feel a little regret for the memory lapse — after such an awkward exchange, you think, the odds of forging a real business connection with that person are close to nil.
This kind of encounter is precisely what you don’t want when you’re building a professional network.
Digital Connection and Digital Distance Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
Over the last two decades, it has become all too easy to leave courtesy by the door. We’ve traded in our handwritten Rolodexes for aloof online portfolios, and our outreach efforts have migrated to social media platforms. For younger generations, in particular, in-person connectivity has fallen from favor. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2018 Social Media Use study, roughly 87 million millennials use the online professional networking platform Linkedin and make up a full 38 percent of the site’s user base. Researchers also found that nearly half of all college graduates in the United States are Linkedin users.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the shift to digital platforms like Linkedin is a bad thing — quite the opposite. At the push of a button, we can send connection invitations to colleagues across the globe and easily maintain an extensive roster of business contacts. Moreover, digital tools like Linkedin are invaluable to professionals and employers alike. Research has shown that not only do 90 percent of recruiters regularly use the platform but also that employees contacted on it are 40 percent less likely to leave a role within six months than those hired using conventional means.
The problem is, however, that the very digital tools that allow us to make connections despite geographical distance often create interpersonal distance. Typed messages are impersonal; connection requests without proper follow-up are superficial. It’s easy enough to request a connection over Linkedin — forging a robust professional relationship in the real world is an entirely different challenge.
Understanding the Value of a True Business Connection
Real interpersonal connections are utterly invaluable in the business world. In 2018, researchers for one study published in the Journal of Corporate Finance found that CEOs who had strong relationships with people of different backgrounds often created higher value for their firms and achieved cheaper funding opportunities than their less-connected peers. Other research has similarly indicated that well-networked corporate board members also tend to have a performance advantage.
Having a strong business network can also benefit professionals on a personal level. As one writer sums up the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, those with a robust roster of personal connections tend to experience “more job and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority. Building and nurturing professional relationships also improves the quality of work and increases job satisfaction.”
But what is a personal connection? Is it a Linkedin friendship and the occasional “hello” at a networking function? The awkward scenario at the top of this article demonstrates that the kind of tenuous link those ties hold doesn’t always count for much.
No — an effective professional network must be forged with care and built on a foundation of respect and interpersonal support. Though professional connections are often limited to the business world, they are, in essence, friendships — and like friendships, they require care and effort to grow.
As business researchers, Tiziana Casciaro, Francisca Gino, and Maryam Kouchaki put the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “When your networking is driven by substantive, shared interests you’ve identified through serious research, it will feel more authentic and meaningful and is more likely to lead to relationships that have those qualities too.”
Courtesy: A Critical Part of Networking
I guess one could say that prioritizing in-person courtesy in an age of digital networking is a little old-fashioned, but I doubt that anyone could argue with the results it provides.
When I first found my start in business in the early 1980s, there weren’t all that many women in business; fewer than one in ten women served on Fortune 500 boards at the time. Given this, I had few female mentors to look to for guidance and support. However, I was determined to become an entrepreneur and knew that I couldn’t rely on anyone else to give me the connections I needed to succeed — I had to build my own Rolodex.
When I began working, I made a point of remembering the names, faces, and stories of those I met. I sent birthday cards and thank-you notes; I reached out when one of my contacts started a new venture or had a new baby. In just paying attention, I could strike up real conversations my contacts cared about, rather than making unmemorable small talk.
These days, mailing a paper card instead of sending a quick email seems a little out of fashion. But I believe that doing so is still meaningful in the way that an in-person smile and conversation is more impactful than a spur-of-the-moment text.
I told as much to one of my mentees, a young entrepreneur. At the time, she was having an issue with a particular buyer and didn’t know how to smooth over the situation. I told her to send flowers and a card. It was a move that hadn’t occurred to her — but when she tried it, the conversation thawed enough for her to make constructive inroads in their negotiation.
Going that extra step to reach out and turn a business contact into a real connection shows that you care; it sets the foundation for healthy relationships and builds both trust and goodwill. Above all else, people appreciate being valued, understood, and heard. When creating a professional network, it is vital to think of your connections as people first, and business contacts second.
So, remember a name, a story. Send flowers; offer a thank you card. Doing so won’t just boost your connections — it will make you a better friend, more capable business innovator, and a more thoughtful person.