'Tis the season to be jolly… and network. And if networking doesn't make you jolly, you should rethink your attitude, improve your techniques, and take advantage of the season to connect and reaffirm business relations.
That's the advice of Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, who along with Darcy Rezac and Judy Thomson runs the Vancouver-based Shepa Learning Company, which helps executives with networking and communications. She is always bemused by how commonly leaders avoid networking – not just introverts but also extroverts who like to be with people.
Don't believe her? At the next conference you attend, look what happens at the coffee break, or as she calls it the "networking break." People start yakking away on their smartphone or desperately thumb through e-mails. Their companies have paid thousands of dollars for then to attend and learn – growth that can be aided by talking to their fellow participants – but they are checking with colleagues in the office or tackling routine e-mails.
The reason, she feels, is that we view networking as somewhat unsavoury: We're supposed to milk other people for information or sell ourselves. Indeed, recent research by Tiziana Casciaro of the Rotman School of Management and two colleagues from other universities found networking makes people feel dirty. But Ms. Hallgren-Rezac preaches positive networking. "It's not about you. It's about the other person – seeing what you can do for them."
With that attitude, the many events in the coming weeks should be viewed as an opportunity to connect with others rather than a terrible demand on your time. That doesn't mean you have to attend all of them. But don't avoid any simply because you can get away with not attending. You never know who you will meet and who they may know. Go, reach out, and build trust.
Here are seven networking tips her firm offers for the season:
Pop in, pop out
If you're overloaded with invitations at a given time, don't decline to attend. Show up – even if you can only spend 30 minutes. Say hello to as many people as you can, instead of getting trapped by one person. Make sure you connect with your host and if your leaving will be noticed, advise that you can't stay late. But don't get into comparing the event to others on your list – just say, "I'm busy." And if it's your own company holding the event, you must be present. "In a corporation they don't notice if you're there but they notice if you don't show up," she says in the interview.
Don't forget the basic equipment
Have business cards with you at all events, and know exactly where you can find them. Don't shy away from handing them out. When Ms. Hallgren-Rezac meets somebody new, she offers her card and immediately asks for their's to remember them and give her their co-ordinates. "It's a technique," she admits, that some may feel is too businesslike. "But it works."
Adopt a buddy system
Don't go alone. Bring someone else with you – a spouse, colleague or friend – particularly if you're an introvert. If you're unsure you can add a guest, ask in advance. It makes the evening more pleasant to have someone accompanying you, who may know people you don't and offer introductions, and you can extricate one another if ensnared in a useless conversation.
Don't eat and greet
You can't eat, drink, and shake hands at the same time. So keep at least one hand free to greet others, which is, after all, the reason you're there. And since the flu and colds will often be circulating, take some hand sanitizer and use it discreetly.
Surprise with an old-fashioned treat
Ms. Hallgren-Rezac's company still sends out hand-written holiday season cards and she recommends you join in. E-cards killed traditional cards to business acquaintances so you can stand out by sending a card with a personalized message.
Send small gifts
A small gift can also be nice – a Starbucks gift card or a book that you suspect most recipients would love to receive. She cites The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson, which you can probably pick up for $25. She stresses avoiding dollar store fun gifts and knickknacks, but a sweet treat is always good.
Be a connector
Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, celebrated connectors. See if you can bring together for a restaurant meal 15 to 20 people who don't know each other or would like to get to know each other better. Have each introduce themself and what they're doing now, and as host throw out questions that everyone can discuss as a group rather than letting conversation retract to just table neighbours. They can share in the tab, and may want to do it again.
"Give yourself a gift to talk to others during the holiday season," she says.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter