At my previous law firm job, my employer had a policy on networking. The firm said that we should not invite people to connect to us on LinkedIn or similar websites (presumably for fear of accidentally forming an attorney-client relationship), but that we could accept any invitations we received to connect with others on such websites. My adherence to that policy taught me a valuable lesson: You don’t have to waste time on business networking, because other people will do it for you.
Although I have LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, I have only invited a handful of people to connect with me. Generally, I just wait for people to find and invite me. Despite my lack of effort, I have dozens of LinkedIn connections, most of whom are highly connected individuals – the type who search people out and invite them. And I have well over 100 facebook connections.
If I were interested in using these connections to “build social capital,” I suppose I would focus my efforts on making my social networking profile pages look good (i.e., updating resumes, using professional photographs, etc.), and on having real-life encounters (phone calls, lunches, etc.) with my existing contacts.
But seeking out people to connect to seems both unnecessary and counterproductive: Unnecessary, because other people will find me, regardless of whether I spend time looking for them. Counterproductive, because the people I have to search for did not initially search for me because (1) they are not highly networked people or (2) they are not interested in me; either way, they will waste space in my contact database.
Granted, by using this low-maintenance method of networking I will probably miss a few gems. There are some really useful contacts out there that I will never connect with, but the amount of work necessary to find them does not justify the likely benefit of finding them.
In reality, I am a critic of conventional business networking (see my prior posts on the topic). Interestingly, though, people who make little or no effort to network (as described above) can still end up with a sizable collection of social networking links.
The real key to networking is not remembering names – it is being remembered. If you do well at whatever you do, change organizations (employers, clubs, church congregations, etc.) every once in a while, and respond positively to others’ invitations to connect, then you will always have a good collection of useful links to others.