Most IT leadership professionals understand that they can't do their job in isolation. As Scott Lowe points out, CIOs can't go it alone anymore. Many CIOs, though, have trouble assessing what this exactly means. There's a sense that it involves networking, but no underlying conversation of what networking looks like or how to do it.
So that's the conversation I want to enter today. I'd like to talk about how most people view networking, give my version of what networking is and provide some concrete strategies CIO and other IT leadership professionals can use.
Most people (not just CIOs) view networking as a chore. Others view it as a competition to see who can build the biggest network. And still others view it as a silly practice best left to people who don't know how to really do their job. But these are usually the opinions of people who have never tried, or those who tried and didn't do it well. That's understandable, because those who have never tried it or who didn't succeed don't yet understand how helpful and fun networking actually is.
In reality, networking is nothing more than connecting with people. It's a chance to have fun, and show people that you care.
The root of our misconception about network lies in the term itself. A network is a way to connect devices so that you can exchange information. This is a very transactional view of a network (and it should be when you're talking about technology). When you transfer it into the business world where real people exist, though, this transactional view becomes dangerous. If you view networking this way, you risk the chance of pushing people away and isolating yourself.
Instead, you should view networking as a chance to create allies. You may have heard the "bank account" metaphor before. It's a little overdone, but it fits perfectly in this scenario. To build an ally, you must start by making a deposit. You have to give the person something so that when you ask for help or a favor later you've already build up some "street cred" in your "bank account."
When you've found out how to do this effectively, you will have a great start to building your network. But how do you begin this process?
Start with influencers
It might seem superficial to focus on the more important people, but the truth is that you only have so many hours in the day. If you have to choose between networking with the CFO and the janitor, choose the CFO if they can provide you more benefits.
Keep in mind, though, that high status within an organization isn't necessarily an indicator of an influencer. It might be that the janitor turns out to be a better partnership. Think through what a person has to offer you instead of just their job title.
Schedule time in a relaxed, undemanding setting
This might mean that you set up a meeting off-site to talk (see the next strategy for topic ideas). But it might also mean simply having lunch with an influencer in the staff room or after a conference. If you're scheduling a meeting, make sure that you're not scheduling it because you want something. State beforehand that you're scheduling the meeting so you can get to know the person.
Offer your attention and expertise
The first thing you must always do is to offer your genuine attention. Ask some questions. How is the person's family? How did they get involved in their current field? This allows you to build a solid base upon which your partnership rests.
Second, offer your expertise. What can you do to help them? Take the janitor as an example. You could ask them if your team is doing anything to hinder them doing their job (cables left out, etc.). Maybe you'll find out that you can't help the person right now, but you still get points for caring. People will remember it.
Don't forget your team
Work to build connections with your team, as well. You probably already know the importance of this, so I won't give an example.
However, since you're team is closest to you, you should encourage them to build a network. Your team comes in contact with scores of people each week who you probably don't even know exist. Teach them how to network with these people. This will increase the size of your network by-proxy.
Bringing it together
Of course, building a network isn't all about giving; it's also about receiving. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. For example, most companies now utilize some form of IT service management. The CIO's job in this is to make sure that these outsourced tasks integrate well with internal processes. Networking in this scenario might mean building a solid relationship with someone at the third-party company and asking them to keep you informed of changes.
Networking takes time and emotional energy. Just remember that it's all for a purpose. And, on the plus side, you may build some real friendships while also paving the way for any favors or help you'll need in the future. Trust me; it's worth it.