Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The "Science" of Networking

Networking is an art, most experienced professionals in finance and other business activities might assert. They value the benefits and have seen them; they acknowledge how it takes time, years, and frequent relationships and connections to get good at it.

They might say the best, most meaningful results are achieved by those who aren't desperate for immediate results, those who aren't expecting the job or promotion next week or don't expect to win the new client business based on one phone call. The best at networking and relationship-building, they might say, are those who do it all the time, who see an assortment of value in people of different backgrounds, talents and experiences. The best, they say, are those who do it naturally.

Networking could be a science, so say two business-school professors, who have done research recently in how professionals manage networks, business relationships, personal contacts and business dealing. They contend scientific experiments or methods can be used to determine the best approaches to networking and developing professional relationships.

The two professors, Ko Kuwabara of Columbia and Oliver Sheldon of Rutgers, performed studies using techniques from "game theory."  They used participants ("players") and observed and monitored "business relationships" in hypothetical business situations, especially where participants were not familiar with each other socially or professionally. They monitored activities that involved "exchanges in value" among participants.

They conducted experiments and assessed situations where participants saw each other frequently (frequent, measured interactions over a short period of time) and where participants had contact that involved in-depth interaction or negotiation or required a certain amount of trust and confidence in others.

(At Columbia Business School, Prof. Kuwabara specializes in negotiation and social capital. This spring, he is teaching social networks and social capital to MBA students. At Rutgers, Prof. Sheldon specializes in negotiation and organization behavior. Both have Ph.D. degrees from Consortium school Cornell-Johnson.)

The project and research are ongoing and will likely be enhanced, fine-tuned and updated over time.  But they are ready to share early observations and a few useful conclusions that might benefit many MBAs in finance, especially those early in their careers. Some of the useful recommendations from the initial research are summarized.

1.  In the beginning of a relationship, whether it's one defined by mentoring, business interaction, buyer-seller relations, or adviser-client relations, frequent contact, they say, is important. They see value in establishing relationship momentum and allowing a relationship to evolve and develop from frequency of contact. Their experiments, they say, show that relationships that are "disrupted," curtailed, or stifled will be relationships that wither or dissipate. Relationship disruptions, distractions or interruptions are relationship-killers.

This advice is important for young MBAs or MBA students who wonder whether too much contact with a senior mentor or professional will overwhelm ties to a more experienced person or give an impression that the younger person is a bother or a nag. Young professionals are often hesitant to initiate frequent contact lest they be a burden.

The professors say frequent contact is crucial. The young MBA or student, however, can offset a concern of too much contact by approaching meetings with senior professionals by being focused, natural, at ease, and purposeful.

For more senior professionals in their own circles, frequent contacts and consistent networking become opportunities to explore others' talents and experiences, to tap others for insight and ideas, and even to learn something new about a topic, issue, financial instrument, business strategy or corporate client.

2. While the professors recommend frequent contact, they recommend a "slow build-up" of trust. In other words, they suggest people should "test the waters" with each other. Start slowly and deliberately to build trust and confidence. This might be called "investing in the relationship." You establish frequent contact, but allow time to build trust. When trust comes, both sides know it. The professors say that the "most robust" relationships are those where people "earned (that) trust" over time.

To get to a point of earned trust, of course, professionals had to have frequent interaction and relationship momentum from steady, consistent contact.

What might all this mean for young MBAs, MBA students, and finance professionals early in their careers, especially those who are called upon to establish meaningful (and, yes, profitable, fruitful and lucrative) relationships with clients, colleagues, senior managers, and staffers?

The professors' research suggests they, too, work at ensuring they maintain frequent, consistent contacts. Touch bases regularly, they would recommend. Keep in touch. Don't let important contacts forget who you are, what you can do, and what you might be striving for in the long term. Relationships reach a momentum, and the momentum must be tended to; otherwise, it dims or evaporates.

But they suggest, too, that you must give relationships time to build trust. Don't rush them along, or don't force results, conclusions or an immediate, tangible impact. Often in the beginning, you never know what that long-term benefit can be. It might be the job, role, position, or promotion you initially looked for. But it might also be a new idea, a new introduction, a new contact, a useful opinion, a point of view, or good, old-fashioned advice.

Or it might be a new way of doing old things. Allow for give-and-take, and allow for trust and confidence to grow. The professors contend relationships soar once trust takes hold.

Tracy Williams

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