This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
Being able to meet new people, expand your connections, and build personal rapport is a key element in business today. But anyone who struggles with balancing career and family knows well the challenge of finding time for networking.
That cocktail party at your favourite professional association or hearing a speaker at a conference might be tempting, but sometimes family simply has to be your priority. Little by little, those networking meetings slip by as we hurry home for family dinner, homework help and precious one-on-one time with the kids.
There is a solution though, so you don't need to give up hope. Using today's social media tools, mobile technologies, and teleconferencing, it has never been easier to keep up with old contacts and build a network of new ones right from the comfort of your living room. It's quite acceptable to networking like this.
Conversations are everywhere on the Web. Whether you're interested in marketing, manufacturing, media, or any other industry, there's already a network of people discussing topics online. It's easy to join a conversation, no matter if you want to contribute your voice or just listen in.
In my view, Twitter is the easiest place to start. Setting up a Twitter account is simple. Then to find a group that shares your interest, just type in a "hashtag" – a key word or words starting with the # sign– to see if other people are using it. Thousands of hashtags are already popular, as people tweet their 140-character comments. If you find some people whose tweets impress you, you can attract their attention by "winking" at them virtually by following them or favouriting their posts. Then you can send them a private message once they follow you back and connect one-on-one with each to pursue deeper conversations.
Some hashtags are regularly moderated, with a group leader who tweets out a question for others to respond to. I like the #innochat conversation about innovation that takes place each Thursday at noon (ET) for an hour. Cathryn Hrudicka (@CreativeSage) is the moderator and after a few sessions, you'll start to recognize the regulars.
LinkedIn groups are a valuable way to connect with professionals of all stripes. Just sign up for LinkedIn, post your profile, then join the interest groups that intrigue you. Being part of LinkedIn also helps you track people's connections and career moves. You can see who gets connected to whom, what new jobs people have, and who is being mentioned in the media.
Facebook is also increasingly used by businesses and individual professionals. You can "Like" their page and then post comments to initiate conversations with the page owner and other fans of that business. Business professionals have been worried about using Facebook, associating the network with teenager sharing drinking binges and cute pictures of cats. My experience is quite different. I find a number of my business colleagues are now using Facebook to create communities of interest, keep track of new developments in technology or industries. I follow the Tech List developed by Robert Scoble. With over 1,000 professionals, all involved in tech, it is a great way to keep track of current trends.
Use social media networking tools whenever you are preparing for business meetings or entering into talks with a new client. For instance, when I teach a new class of 30 executives in the executive MBA program at HEC-McGill, I get to know them in advance by searching their social media profiles. Then I start an online conversation with each one of them, which provides me with a conversation starter when we finally meet.
I also save time these days using the Web and social media rather than personally attending certain conferences that take me away from my family for days. I can often watch live streaming video of the workshops, then I connect with participants over Twitter or LinkedIn during the conference. It's almost like being there and I don't feel out-of-sight, out-of-mind. (I use two screens so that the conference can happen in the background as I do regular work).
Time spent on all these social media sites can mount up, so here's a few tips to be more efficient:
1. Organize a social media "command center" using one of the programs that aggregates all your tweets and chats. I use social media manager HootSuite which allows you to see on a single screen all the social networks you participate in. It can collate your messages from Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.
2. Be selective about whom you want to connect with, otherwise you can be inundated with connection requests.
3. Develop a specific routine for the time you are willing to spend on social media. Choose 15 or 30 minutes in the morning or night, and stick with it to have a consistent appearance.
4. Make use of wasted time at airports, or travelling in taxis, trains, and buses with mobile phone apps for each social media site.
5. Be genuine and gracious in your online persona. Thank people who helped you, and be honest about who you are and what interests you.
If you follow these recommendations, you will be amazed at how you can grow your connections and never feel left out by mining your presence on social media. Social media is not a replacement for real human connection, but it's an excellent first step and it paves the way for meeting in person. And if you need a tutor to figure out how to use social media, spending time at home with your kids may even be the best thing you can do.
Estelle Metayer (@Competia) is the principal and founder of Competia, a leadership and strategy consulting firm, and is an adjunct professor with McGill University's leadership business programs.