Networking: The Value of Conversation

By | October 14, 2009

This is the keynote speech I delivered to the Travelers Information Technology Leadership Development Program Annual Session in Hartford, Connecticut on October 13, 2009.

Thank you, Tony for your introduction, and thank you members of the Information Technology Leadership Development Program for inviting me to speak today about networking and the value of conversation.

I’d like to first extend my sincere congratulations to all members of ITLDP graduating class. The current leadership at Travelers, I’m sure, is very proud and pleased to have you in their network.

So let me start this conversation by telling you a little bit about myself, my job as a journalist at the Hartford Courant, and how my network brought us together this afternoon.

I’ve been a full-time professional journalist for the past 15 years. The first five years I worked as an old-fashioned print newspaper reporter. For the other 10 I’ve been online, helping the Hartford Courant navigate through the possibilities and pitfalls of new media.

Almost all the opportunities I’ve had in my career have been the result of networking. If you think about the track of your own careers, the same is probably true.

For me, it started when I was an undergrad at the University of Connecticut.

The journalism professor who taught me computer-assisted reporting also happened to be the metro editor at the Hartford Courant.

I got an A in her class… She offered me my first job.

UConn is also where my network connects to all you fine folks here at Travelers.

It is a member of the Travelers leadership “network” presented me with this opportunity today – Emily Schur of Human Resources.

Emily is a mentor to ITLDP participants AND she has been one of my best friends since we met as bright-eyed undergrads at UConn.

And let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, Emily knows how to network.

First, she emailed me about this gig, than she called me, then she asked me out to brunch. And as you can see, I’m here today.

Even though our personal and professional trajectories have pointed in different directions through the years, Emily and I have remained “networked” so to speak because…

…and I’m sure you know this if you are lucky enough to have Emily in your network… she offers a great deal of “value” to me.

That brings me to my first point about networking.

Value.

Each component of a “network” must have value for it be worthy of inclusion.

So what is your value to Travelers? What is Travelers’ value to you?

In the business world, the value of an employee is skill, experience and knowledge – basically, the ability and wherewithal to get a job done.

You members of the leadership development program were handpicked to be part of this particular network … because you demonstrated your value.

Emily was kind enough to think I would be worthy of inclusion in this event today because of my professional experience with social networking.

Thank you, Em, for believing in my value.

Now I want to bring a great deal of value to this conversation and I do not want to disappoint Emily, so for the past month, I’ve spent A LOT of time thinking about networking — especially during my daily commute to Hartford.

Thinking about networking while commuting is a far safer use of my time than talking or texting on my mobile.

That leads me to my second point about networking.

Avoid networking with hand-held devices while driving. Very dangerous.

This audience today is filled with experienced IT pros who know way more about the nitty-gritty of computer networking than I ever will.

…So I’ll be the journalist
…and explore the human side of “networking”
… like a news story.

Let’s start by answering the most relevant question first.

What is networking?

We need a source. Who should we ask?

Google knows everything.

What can Google tell us about “networking”?

20.9 million results.

Luckily, Google puts its most relevant ones at the top. Here are the first six for “networking”.

Number one.

“Computer network” – entry from Wikipedia

Number two.

Another entry from Wikipedia – “Social network”

They say that social networking is now the #1 most popular activity on the web, overtaking porn. Supposedly by next year, 96% of all of Gen Y will have joined a social network

Number three.

The business social networking website “Linked In.” The hyperlink text reads “Relationships Matter.”

Number four.

News stories about “networking”

Number five.

Welcome to Facebook! The most popular social networking website.

Facebook added 100 million users in 9 months. I heard a factoid recently that said if Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world.

Number six.

Cisco Systems, Inc. The company that makes the hardware that enables computers to network.

So what shall we take away as our Google-powered conclusion?

Networking is one of three things:

• Productivity machines connected together by cables, switches and routers.

• Digital exchange of bits of information to those interconnected machines

• People sharing ideas, forming communities and building relationships – using software on those interconnected machines.

That last one is our story about “networking” – the “nut graph” as we say in the print journalism world.

Networking is people
• sharing ideas
• forming communities
• and building relationships

—–

So to tell a compelling story about people and networking, we need examples. We need facts. We need sources with expertise and theories and opinions.

Since I’m a writer, I think we also need some poetry.

Or at least some synonyms – other words and phrases we can use to capture the meaning and essence of “networking.”

Here are a few:

= Collaboration
= Partnerships
= Participation
= Interdependency
= Friendships
= Sharing

Conversation.

Let’s linger a moment with this word – “conversation.”

If networking is “conversation,” than networking is at its core a “meaningful exchange” of information between two or more people.

Conversations occur all the time. They happen in the face-to-face traditional way – shaking hands, meeting over coffee, chatting at dinner parties or at business conventions.

Thanks to Internet technology, conversations are also happening through email, instant messaging, SMS, on blogs and Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter.

Our ability to network effectively is directly related to how well we conduct ourselves in conversations, both online and off.

It is not enough to just look great on our resumes. It’s not enough to meet a person once, get their business card and blindly friend them on Facebook.

Good conversations take work. You can’t be passive about it.

In his book, “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell describes a set of people in society known as “connectors.” These are people who have far bigger social circles than other people. Connectors, Gladwell writes, have a “truly extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances.”

Gladwell wasn’t talking about people who competitively hoard friends on Facebook. It doesn’t matter how many LinkedIn connections you have if you haven’t established any trust with those people and if all your conversations are shallow.

The key to social power, Gladwell says, is the “intimacy of relationships.”

Intimacy comes from true connections and meaningful exchanges … a.k.a. good conversations.

In the journalism classes I’ve taught at UConn and at Quinnipiac, I’ve had a few students who rely too much on the ease of new media communication tools.

Rather than call and question a source over the phone or make an appointment to meet-up in person, some students think it is OK to just send questions via email.

This is bad practice, I warn them. It’s lazy. It’s shallow and impersonal. If they only are willing to communicate using email, they aren’t going to establish any trust with the source. Without trust, they won’t gain access to the most meaningful information. And they won’t be able to tell the best story.

Whether we are journalists or IT managers at Fortune 500 companies, we have to be willing to invest our own value to gain access to the value of others.

I have a colleague at the Hartford Courant – Matthew Kauffman – who was a 2007 finalist for journalism’s most prestigious award – The Pulitzer Prize.

Matt and another reporter spent more than a year writing a series of in-depth reports about suicide among American soldiers in Iraq – a very sensitive topic. The stories prompted congressional and military action to address the mental health issues raised.

I asked Matt: How long did it take to convince the family members of these dead soldiers to open up to him?

He told me: from first contact over the phone to them finally agreeing to go on the record for the story – took six months.

Matt said he spent hours and hours on the telephone, listening to them tell their stories. He said there was no way these grieving people were going to trust him based on just one or two conversations. He had to keep following up, including traveling many many hours to meet with some of them in-person.

After the stories were published, Matt received a thank you email from one of the sources, describing him as a “compassionate stranger.”

Our success as leaders in the workplace, in our community, on our Facebook groups will be based upon people’s willingness to trust in our work and our vision.

So we have to put in the time – online and in person – to understand what motivates others, in order to influence and inspire them.

Author Margaret Wheatley wrote: “You can’t direct people to perfection, but you can engage them enough so that they want to do perfect work.”

We can engage people with good conversation.

Maybe you find a connection on Linked In or by chatting for a few minutes at dinner party or at a special business event like this one today. If you determine that this person you’ve met can bring value to your network, do what you need to do to move the conversation deeper.

Follow up – with an email, a phone call or an in-person meeting.

It is the quality of your exchange that will make the difference.

Engaging people is the main challenge facing the news business right now. Audiences are fragmented. Fewer people are reading the newspaper. The easy exchange and saturation of information has my industry in a tizzy.

People aren’t keeping the newspaper as part of their daily lives because the printed format has diminished in value. It doesn’t engage them.

But – and I truly believe this – the news stories reported by journalists have not lost their value. It is just the old format. All those bloggers and talk show hosts wouldn’t have much to reference if it wasn’t for journalists.

News serves as the basis for conversations every single day.

What journalism really needs to do is take a cue from you corporate types and get better at networking, using all communication channels at our disposal.

That’s where my job at the Courant and social networking come in.

Like every individual has their own unique set of interests, every story we write at the Courant is topical.

People want to be passionate about their interests. They want connection. They give their trust to those they engage with.

They are using social networking technology to connect with others who share their interests. People are doing this through Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and blogs. If that’s where the audience is hanging out, then that’s where my news organization needs to be.

I tap into social networks every day at work to earn awareness for the stories the Hartford Courant is writing.

More importantly, I use social networks to help my fellow journalists build relationships with readers and potential sources who share affinities for the topics they cover.

Social networks are helping journalists grow from conversation starters to “conversation leaders.”

Recently, I’ve been working as a “conversation leader” on a year-long domestic violence awareness project. It is a blog called “Overcoming Battered Lives.”

Throughout the week, I post news items to the blog or send story ideas to other contributors, I collaborate via email and the telephone with a group of domestic violence advocates in Connecticut for them to submit guest posts. The blog also encourages the public to share their own personal stories and opinions.

The effort has gotten a terrific response so far. People are telling their stories and debating issues through lots of comments. The project feels very worthwhile.

Which brings me to another important reason to tap into networks.

People who engage in meaningful exchanges serve as energy and resource to one another.

This holds true in a corporate setting like at Travelers, too.

Employees who connect because they are motivated by the same topics will want to work collaboratively. And workers who collaborate are far more productive and successful than those working in isolation.

Jeff Howe, in his 2008 book “Crowdsourcing,” wrote that: “labor can often be organized more efficiently in the context of community.”

“The best person to do a job,” Howe said, “is the one who most wants to do that job.”

“And the best people to evaluate their performance are their friends and peers who, will enthusiastically pitch in to complete the final project… simply for the sheer pleasure of creating something from which they will all benefit.”

You IT professionals are familiar with the idea behind “crowd-sourcing.” It finds its roots in the Open Source computer software movement — Linux, Apache, Firefox, even Google maps. All powerful open source IT projects that would not have been developed were it not a willingness to open up and tap into the wisdom of the crowd.

Web 2.0 sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, and Facebook are another product of crowdsourcing, These sites grow exponentially in value as more people participate in them.

This openness is a major culture change from the old organizational models of control and secrecy. Rather than foster an atmosphere of containment and competition, companies are tearing down the barriers, instituting networks and encouraging employees to collaborate.

It makes me think of that saying my mom used to trot out when it was time for me and my brothers to do the dishes.

“Many hands make light work”

—–

Let’s pause for a moment and think about our own productivity. Productivity is dependent upon
• What we know
• Our skill set
• Our work ethic
• Access to the right tools
• And access to the right information

Access to the right information often means access to the right people.

How to gain access to the right people?

Networking.

In journalism world, access to the right people is key. Connecting with the right source is the difference between a journalist telling a good story and not telling one at all.

Networking is important to the leadership at Travelers for the same reason: It means finding the right people to get the job done.

In my conversations with Emily, Tony and other members of ITLDP, I learned that one of program’s foundational principles is networking.

Each of the graduates today has rotated through multiple assignments in the past four years. The program is intentionally designed so participants report to an assortment of managers, work on varied teams, and have access to different leaders across the company.

Through this process, the ITLDP participants have become a great example for our networking story.

They are forming a community, sharing ideas and building relationships.

They are leading conversations. And undoubtedly, their value to the Travelers network has gone up, up, up.

So one last story from me.

It is sometime in the mid-1990s. It is my first day as a reporter covering the town of Windsor. I show up at work and my editor hands me my first assignment.

“Drive around and get lost.”

Hours later, once I found my way back, he gives me my next assignment.

“Introduce yourself to as many people in town as possible.”

If my job was going to be writing a story every day about this community, I needed to build up a network of sources who would trust me and help me, so I’d have people and issues to write about.

It made sense to start with the people who seem most important. At the police department, that would be the police chief, right?

Well, I soon figured out that I could spend lots of time developing a rapport with the police chief, but I’d have access to better information on a daily basis if I spent as much time networking with the dispatchers and the chatty ladies in the records room.

The lesson?

Spread your networking swath far and wide. Meaningful exchanges from every stage and every corner of your life present opportunities for the future – for better jobs, new friends, travel, knowledge, even love.

We can all be connectors.

We can all be conversation leaders.

Each of us is our own continent of information and interests.

The particular topics and ideas that motivate us are very likely shared by a few others… at Travelers, at The Hartford Courant and beyond.

Wouldn’t it be great to find and collaborate with the people who care about the stuff we care about? Imagine what could be accomplished.

Graduates, again, I offer you congratulations. Best of luck in all your future endeavors.

I hope this conversation today provided some value to you and I look forward to networking with you once I get down from here.


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