Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Networking Effectively: Who Knows You?

Dr. Benjamin Akande', dean of the school of business and technology at Webster University, likes to tell the story of how he approaches a business networking setting. Recently he walked into a large room filled with business professionals mingling and socializing.

"I sat and watched for 10 minutes. I watched the dynamics of the room to give me an edge," he said. Most were engaged in focused dialogue. Some were meeting, greeting and moving on. Some were performing host duties. Dr. Akande' was devising a plan.

Dr. Akande' presented a webinar on networking May 5: "It's Not Who You Know, But Who Knows You." The webinar was the fourth in a series of webinars, sponsored by the Consortium Finance Network. Over 170 people participated, joining the session from all parts of the country. They included Consortium alumni and students, corporate sponsors, new Consortium students, prospective MBA students, and Webster alumni and students.

In his networking story, Dr. Akande' scoped out the room and strategized on how he would benefit from the contacts he would make in the next few minutes. "I identified who was talking to whom," he said, describing his pre-networking plan. After he observed the dynamics of the room and plotted how he would work it, he decided just from careful observation whom he wanted to meet and where he wanted to mingle in the room. He proceeded to introduce himself and make proper contacts with the right people in the right way.

That day proved to be fruitful, he said. He made at least two very important contacts, and he followed up on them immediately.

In his CFN presentation, Dr. Akande' shared experiences of what has worked for him and recommended techniques for professionals. He provided guidelines for students, for MBA graduates looking for jobs, and for alumni who want to transition into other areas.

He responded to dozens of questions from participants, who wanted to know how he organizes the data in his network of over 5,000 contacts, wanted advice on how to prepare business cards, wanted hints on how to overcome shyness or rejection, and asked how to handle telephone interviews.

Dr. Akande' emphasized follow-up and immediacy. "A lot of folks don't take the time to connect, to do the little things to follow up." He told how at the gathering in his story, he made the two contacts, and by the time he was in a cab leaving the venue, he was already sending follow-up e-mails.

Be yourself, and be original, he said. Know the rules and traditions of where you are. Dr. Akande' noticed how in St. Louis, when people ask where you went to school, they often mean high school. He grew up in Nigeria and learned how to answer the question to his advantage when it came up in area social events.

He described the unusual ways and odd settings in which people can network. "I love networking at airports," he said. "The barriers come down. People want to meet other people." He said he has made meaningful contacts at church, because it's a "democratic setting," at sporting events, and in political campaigns (on both sides of the party spectrum).

Dr. Akande' said, however, his favorite place to network is Starbucks. "Yes, Starbucks on a Saturday morning. Try it." The calm, placcid atmosphere at a coffee shop on a weekend morning allows people to be more engaging, more themselves--free of hidden agenda.

He provided suggestions on how not to be a "pest," how to sense that the moment is going nowhere and the other person is no longer interested in dialogue. He recommended that people shouldn't "park" during networking activities, shouldn't remained glued to one group for long periods--even if they want to. He showed how one can withdraw from a conversation without being rude or abrupt.

Dr. Akande' told how to rebuild relationships that may have been diminished by long periods of no contact or little interest.

One other favorite hint? "I don't send Christmas cards," he said. "I send Thanksgiving cards." People remember them, and they read his notes. They stand out. And he wishes his recipients both a Thanksgiving and Yuletide greeting at once--and thanks them for whatever they might have done for him during the year.

It's 2010, the year of Facebook, Twitter, and an assortment of social media. Webinar participants asked how to use them to a professional advantage. Dr. Akande' reminded all to keep Linkedin profiles up to date and acknowledged the personal benefits of social media. "But social media cannot replace trust," he said, "or the ability to look at the other person in the eye. You can't hide behind it."

"Don't unfriend a friend (in Facebook)," he added. He found that offensive and reminded his audience that one never knows when that contact will be useful or helpful in the long term.

Many participants were new Consortium students who will journey to Orlando for the Orientation Program in June and meet corporate representatives while there. Some asked for his advice in approaching the event. He said, "Do research and homework on the corporations you are interested in."

Dr. Akande' has been dean at Webster the past 10 years. The business school has online offerings and campuses in the U.S. Europe and Asia. His academic interests include economic development, leadership, and generational diversity. He helped lead the effort to create the school's Global MBA, full-time, one-year program in five countries. He is currently working on a book, "The Ipod Generation: It's Their World, We're Just Living in It."

CFN will follow up to provide slide summaries of the presentation to those who registered.

Dr. Akande' said he hopes (and expects) to see participants in Starbucks for his next Saturday-morning coffee run.

Tracy Williams

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