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On belay?

Posted by Keshav Subramanya on April 21, 2009

Let’s say you’ve moved into a new job, a new role, or even a new assignment.  How do you get your bearings?

You could, in theory, “learn” from the ground up – maybe there’s some documentation that is totally relevant to you, maybe your intranet has all the data and information that you need, maybe there are internal forums or blogs filled with helpful information… you’ve my best wishes finding the lot and making sense of it all.  Experience may be a great teacher, but you’ll have bloody toes if you choose to find every stumbling block by yourself.

Or you could go about building up a good, reliable network as rapidly and aggressively as you can.  If you do, you’ll probably have an interactive, self-maintaining map of those blocks much sooner.  And you’ll definitely have a whole lot more fun as you take on your new responsibilities.

Okay, so most people aren’t naturals when it comes to creating a network.  The usual excuses are that they’re “not comfortable” talking to people, they’re worried about “appearing needy”, they’re “already too busy” coping with their assigned tasks… the list goes on.  Agreed, being the ‘new kid’ on any team is usually uncomfortable, but taking the effort to discover those people who have the information you need and to methodically develop ties into them yields unusually handsome results  That said:

  • It will need effort.  But if you spend a little time chatting with your teammates and/or at the water cooler and then moving outward, you’ll soon get a handle on who the ‘players’ are – the people who’re considered the ‘go-to guys’ because they’ve got something that you need in order to begin functioning more efficiently – knowledge.  They could be up or down the chain from you… they could even be outside your chain entirely.   But they’re people, and that’s all you should care about when you try forming a social connection with them.  (Okay, some organizational structures may actively block you making that initial contact.  And if you really, really want to have that person in your network, you’ll then have to use an alternate forum… maybe the golf club, the church, you get the idea.)
  • It will cost you emotionally.  It is up to you to make the initial contact with each one of your potential member set – you’re the one wanting them in your network, while they may not even be aware of you – so this is sometimes the hardest part in the process.  But most people usually give other people one chance to impress them – so don’t blow it.  Sincerity (and maybe reaching out through a common contact) goes a long way here – without getting all windy and boring, explain who you are and why you’re contacting them.  “Just to say hello” is usually a good enough reason – you’ve knocked upon the door and the door has opened.  If you’ve created a favorable impression, you’ll probably be allowed to knock upon that door again.
  • It will need time – set aside a couple hours each week to grow and nurture your network.  Reinforce ties to those members who have been helpful; renew ties to those that have potential, recruit new members based on changes either in your role or in the organization, recycle ties within your network’s members (aka “a friend of a friend is a friend of mine”), and try and repair those ties that haven’t been very functional  Finally, if a member has failed you consistently, remove that tie very carefully – you could stop nurturing it and like most social connections, it’ll probably just wither away over time.
  • And always, always, always remember that you’ve got to reciprocate – share knowledge whenever you can because that’s your network’s lifeblood.  It has to flow away from you as much as it flows toward you… because all “all take and no give” relationships invariably die young.  A network is made up of unwritten bilateral arrangements – to retain your privilege to knock upon a door, you’d better allow your door to be knocked upon.  And when someone knocks upon your door, you’d better be willing to share what you can.

Done right, the gains from having a robust workplace network are both immense and immediate.  You ‘become visible’, because you went out and got people to notice you and maybe convinced them to place you tentatively in their networks.  You can then ask any of them about what works now (hopefully documented), you can ask about what doesn’t work (also hopefully documented), you can even ask about what didn’t work (the mostly undocumented “also ran” ideas that didn’t pan out).  And, you can glean oodles about interpersonal and interdepartmental dynamics across the organization, which will help you recognize and react appropriately to what the organization considers ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

It is never too late to make new friends.

One Response to “On belay?”

  1. Meg Bear said

    great points Keshav. I remember early in my career it was suggested to me that “you might want to spread your questions around so people don’t get tired of you asking so much”. I still smile when I think of that gem of wisdom (and the person who shared it).

    A rich network gives you the ability to scale in a way you could never do on your own, no matter what your level of experience.

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