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Got A Card? November 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking, Technology.
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At any industry event, the impact of social media is evident.  People are tweeting as the event transpires. Bloggers c0ver keynote addresses live.  Vendors stream video from their booths, letting you watch presentations as you browse the show floor.

It is now common to see people run into folks they know but have never actually met.  Relationships built on Twitter or Facebook come alive when people actually meet face to face.  Closing the loop with a physical connection is now the last component of a rich relationship; it used to be the first.

In spite of all this connectedness and mobile technology, one thing has remained absolutely unchanged throughout the lifetime of the internet: the business card.  How can it be, with all this technology at our disposal, that the single most important way to gather important data about a person is a little card? Even people who have built a strong relationship electronically will still exchange cards when they meet for the first time.

Why?  What is missing from the new media that this old solution provides?

The problem has two sources.  First, people still need to exchange some basic data to complete a connection: name, phone number, email address.  Physical address is becoming much less important; other items (like your Twitter or Facebook name) are becoming more prominent.  Even so, the basic way to reach most people is by phone or email.

Secondly, there is no simple way to exchange this information.  I have used many electronic devices over the years, from a Casio Zoomer to various Palm devices to all sorts of phones.  Each of this gadgets has had some way to create a business card and send it to someone else, either by infrared or Bluetooth.  It was always very cool, seemed to work like magic, and never got used more than once or twice.  After you had shown off your geek skills to admiring neighbors, you then exchanged business cards and went on your way.

I don’t know that this will ever change.  There is no cross-platform standard for exchanging virtual business cards that actually works.  I know all about Bluetooth Object Exchange, but it’s just too hard to set up and actually use in real life.

Even if you could establish such a standard, it would take years for everyone to acquire a device that used it.  In the meantime, you’d still be handing out business cards.  And you’d still need cards for people without a device, not to mention needing cards to throw into drawings and such at industry events.

It’s actually kind of quaint that such an old practice simply will not succumb to modern technology.  Even as more and more people  tweet and blog and post and stream, you still cannot avoid asking that age-old question: “May I have your card?”

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Small Talk September 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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I love “small world” stories.  I love wandering into an event and discovering that someone in the room went to my elementary school, or likes the same movies, or knows someone I know.  I like that “who’d have thought?” moment when two people make a connection that they would have never thought possible just moments before.

Much is made these days of networking and how to use it to our advantage in our personal and professional lives.  While a lot of focus is on the social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, there is still a lot of value in face-to-face networking.  It’s just that people seem to avoid it, and that lots of people seem to be bad at it. I think that’s a shame.  With a little practice, everyone can get better at real networking.

The key is to master the art of small talk.  Small talk, far from being as diminutive as its name suggests, is the real grease that makes networking flow.  Through small talk, you can discover the serendipitous connections that will open the door to better, deeper network connections.

Good small talk is easy.  A simple rule for starting a good “small” conversation is to avoid talking about the actual topic that has brought you together with other people.  For example, if you are at an event addressing server virtualization, do not talk about any aspect of servers, virtualization, data centers, or even computing.  This stuff is deadly dull even when you want to talk about it; the idea that you’re going to create a warm connection with someone over a meaningful conversation about virtual memory is ludicrous.

Instead, bring up topics that are likely to generate a connection with someone.  Where do they live? Where are they from? Where did they go to school?  Do they have kids? Hobbies? Seen any good movies? Back from vacation? Doing something interesting this weekend? Play golf? Like to run? There are dozens of simple questions that will get people talking about something that interests them.  The idea is to learn about the other person, find some connections between you and them, and let those connections strengthen your shared knowledge and resulting relationship.

I’m often puzzled why people struggle with this kind of networking.  I’ve seen so many people standing in awkward, uncomfortable silence at networking events, staring at their drinks and stuck for conversation.  That’s foreign to me; anyone who knows me will tell you that I am never stuck for something to say.

Many people in IT are introverts (that’s what the “I” stands for) and have a hard time starting these kinds of conversations. They gravitate back to the safety of technology, which makes it hard to meet non-technical people.  If you are one of these people, you may need to consciously focus on being better at this kind of engagement with people.  That’s OK.

I once worked for someone who knew they were bad at this stuff and had to consciously prepare for events.  When the event was over, they were exhausted by the effort. But they recognized the value of small talk and making connections, so they made the effort, improving over time.

Are you using small talk to build and enrich your network?  Does it come easy, or do you have to work at it?  Either way, small talk paves the way to big rewards in your network. So, seen any good movies lately?

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Investing For Your Future August 24, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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It is happening all too frequently these days.  I get a call or an email from a recruiter with the same story: a great person has lost their job and is looking for a new position.  This person is a seasoned IT executive, a great asset, and has a long history of success.  Would I know of any potential openings in the area?  The recruiter is always kind enough to forward to a resume for my review.

Opening the resume, I note that this person has held a number of executive IT positions with local companies over the past several years. Yet I have never heard of them. How can this be?  I work in the Research Triangle of North Carolina.  We are crawling with technology companies and have one of the strongest local executive networks in the country.  Nonetheless, looking at this resume, I am drawing a complete blank.  Even after checking LinkedIn, I have no second- or third-level connections to this person.

In contrast, I also hear from folks who are very well-connected.  They are in a similar tough position, but they have all sorts of resources to fall back on.  They have built relationships that will help them as they seek a new position.  More than anything else, they have great name recognition and a history of having done great work that is known in the community.

Those folks with no networks give me precious little to work with.  As much as I want to, my ability to assist is limited because this person did not invest in the most important aspect of their long-term career: their network. As they moved up the ladder, racking up those successes, they didn’t take the time to become a part of the community.  Now that trouble has arrived, they have no place to turn for help, advice, or a connection to a new job.

Why do people neglect their network?  Time and again I have invited local CIOs to various networking events, only to be told that they “don’t have the time” or “don’t do those kinds of things.”  I simply cannot understand this mentality.

Investing in your network is like investing in an savings account.  You deposit a little at a time, over a long period of time.  You accrue value that, in many cases, you hope you never need to use.  But when you need it, it’s there, and it’s a lifesaver.  Sometimes you draw from your network in little pieces: a question answered or an opinion confirmed.  But occasionally you make a major withdrawal: career changes or economic upheaval.

But the real purpose of a network is not about how it helps you.  The real purpose of a network is that it gives you the ability to help everyone else, all the time, in many ways.  You meet interesting people.  You learn from them.  You get the privilege of helping them.

Let me be blunt: people who fail to build their networks are acting selfishly.  They hurt themselves, certainly, but they also diminish everyone else. By choosing to not give a little to those around them now, they rob our community of their potential contributions.  Networks succeed when everyone pitches in, just a little bit.  All those little bits create a rich community of people sharing, helping, teaching, and learning.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Are you keeping your network active?  Are you an active part of your community?  Make a commitment to contribute to your community by networking.  And may you never need to draw on the goodwill you’ll be creating.

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The Original Social Media Guru June 8, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Book Reviews, Networking.
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If you spend any time doing anything on the internet, you will soon stumble across a special kind of expert who is just dying to help you improve your virtual social life.  These self-professed Social Media Gurus promise to reveal deep secrets about Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, all designed to garner you more followers, more attention, and more interest on the internet.

Let’s face it: the vast, vast majority of Social Media Gurus know just a teeny bit more than you do about all this stuff.  If you really wanted to learn their secrets, ten minutes with Google (or Bing, which is growing on me) will make you a Social Media Guru, too.  And if you really want 100,000 followers, or friends, or connections, one mortifying YouTube video should do the trick.

All these social networking tools are just communication tools: conduits for information. You can learn the mechanics of any of them in a day, and absorb most of the culture in a week.  But that doesn’t make you any more social, although you may have made a good start at a network.

What matters is what you send over those conduits.  The information you share and how you respond to others is what’s important. It’s the content that counts, not the mechanics of the tool.

Most modern Social Media Gurus want to teach you the mechanics.  This is not social networking, just like understanding the mechanics of a piano is not going to make you a piano player.  Very few Social Media Gurus can teach you what to send using these systems, once you have mastered the mechanics.

Sadly, the very best Social Media Guru died in 1955, before any of these things were invented. Fortunately for us, he wrote down all his secrets well before he passed away.  That Guru was Dale Carnegie, and his secrets are revealed in his book, How To Win Friends & Influence People.

If you have never read this book, do yourself a great favor and pick up a copy.  For Amazon’s bargain price of $8.70 ($0.96 on your Kindle) you can learn the secrets of the greatest Social Media Guru in history.  Carnegie’s book is easy to read, with each concept presented in a short chapter with supporting anecdotes.  If even that’s too much for you, he summarizes each chapter with a one-line moral at the end.  The anecdotes are delightful, recalling social situations from the 1920’s and 1930’s that are still relevant today.

If you have read this book before, read it again.  You will have the same revelations all over again, and be even more committed to changing the way you communicate with people. Carnegie was among the first, and is still the best, Social Media Guru.

I won’t even try to summarize Carnegie’s advice here.  Click the link above, buy the book, and start your summer reading with the one book that could truly improve every relationship you have.

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Comfort Zones May 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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Last summer, I had the opportunity to watch a group of Boy Scouts go through a high-ropes team building exercise.  Beyond the fun of watching boys climb 50 feet in the air with nothing more than a safety rope hooked to their waist, I learned a clever trick about comfort zones.

High-ropes courses are all about getting out of your comfort zone.  I am very comfortable on the ground, enjoying the combination of gravity and my feet firmly planted on the earth.  Climbing a 40-foot ladder comprised solely of five planks at eight-foot intervals took me way out of my zone, to the point of near-frozen, knee-shaking fear at the top.  But I did it, and I’m better for it, if only to avoid embarrassment in front of 13-year-olds who scrambled to the top like monkeys.

There was a more subtle comfort zone that was shattered five minutes into the day.  When we arrived, the instructors asked the boys to pair up.  As you would expect, they found their best friends and quickly formed twosomes.  She then asked them to each assume a character, either SpongeBob or Patrick (remember the audience here).  They did so.  She then gathered all the SpongeBobs into one group, and all the Patricks into another.  One group headed to the ropes course, and the other to another exercise.

In one deft motion she separated every boy from his best friend! For the rest of the day, the boys worked without the comfort of their buddy, opening them to social opportunities they would never have had.  They still had fun, accomplished things, and grew a bit.  But they did it with a little more risk and became more open to partnering with others throughout the day.

I was so impressed by this trick that I asked the leader about it.  She shared that they had choices for any number of groups.  Need groups of three? Team them in trios and then ask them to become one of the Three Stooges.  Foursomes? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And so forth.  They had learned that boys know how to game the “count off” trick, positioning their best friends “n” people away to make sure they stayed together.  The character game took them by surprise, before they could figure out how to thwart the leader’s intent.

As adults, we probably won’t be asked to become a cartoon character (I’d pick SpongeBob, FYI). But, boy, do we need to be broken up and moved out of our social comfort zones!  How many times do you arrive at a networking event and look for the familiar faces?  I’m guilty of this, and I really enjoy working a room and getting to meet new people.  For the less gregarious among us, breaking out to meet strangers is a difficult exercise.

How many opportunities do we miss for fear of breaking away from our comfortable friends?  There is such value in meeting new people, expanding our horizons, and finding ways to help others.  Our reluctance to engage a stranger costs us so much.  As adults, we are supposed to know better and not require outside intervention to make us do the right thing.  Yet we still revert to old behaviors, rooted deep in our psyches.

We all own this problem.  At your next event, acknowledge the familiar faces and turn away to meet the strangers.  If your friends chase you down, gently aim them at others as well.  You may have to write “SpongeBob” on your name tag to make your point, but it will be worth the effort.