Connecting: Let’s Make it Real

While dining with colleagues recently, our discussion turned to how easy it is to connect with the entire world and yet still be isolated and alone.  As much as we’ve all become “interconnected,” many of us still lack the ability to “connect” with one another.  Sad, because so many miss out on the power of face-to-face connection.  In addition, by being electronically versus personally connected, we lose out on the subtle (and sometimes obvious) knowledge to be gained from those who have very different backgrounds, viewpoints, delivery styles, and experiences.  The challenge of truly connecting with people at all levels has grown across all generations now that we’re starting to talk more at one another than with each other.

Let me share a story:  A few weeks back, while at a local store, I overheard a young clerk who was SO excited about a story he was sharing with a colleague.  These two young men, apparently newly minted college graduates, seemed frustrated with trying to find permanent jobs (I see similar frustrations with professionals searching for their first or second board seat).  One seemed so animated and excited about a friend who, as he put it, “was set for life.”  With great exuberance he continued:  “It’s all about talking with people… you know that getting ahead is REALLY all about TALKING WITH AND GETTING TO KNOW PEOPLE!”  These words caught my interest.

He continued by saying his friend had gotten to know another friend’s mom who had started a business.  In speaking with her over time, he learned about her vision and plans.  Shortly thereafter, he was asked if he’d be interested in joining the young company.  Within two years, he was being sent out to help launch their West Coast operations. “See? That’s what I mean.  You have to speak with everyone, get to know them, learn how you can help them and then continue to talk with others, expand the connections, and build upon those relationships.”  Honestly, I was amazed at how his energy level and body posture changed while sharing this story.

Relationships and Communication – Top Level

Now you may wonder what this story has to do with CEOs, boards, or directors.  For most people, connecting with people they don’t know, and building or expanding upon relationships with others is not a natural skill.  Creativity and ease in doing so is a talent that’s quite often uncomfortable for many large companies’ leaders and directors to cultivate. In fact, I’ve noticed that those who parade the names of people they know can be the among the least broadminded or influentially connected people you could meet. Here’s an example: in conversation with a board member and former Fortune CEO, he explained his recent discovery about how important it was to get to know someone slowly before trying to ‘get them to do something that you needed’.  The comment I found to be fascinating, more so because it wasn’t the first time I’d heard such comments from a CEO or board member. What he didn’t know was that I knew the person he was trying to connect with and that my relationship could have catalyzed his building such a relationship, increasing the return for him and the other person, too.   

This experience is not unique. I’ve observed the communication and network path of numerous CEOs, directors, and senior executives who have made similar statements and who liberally drop the names of ‘who they know’ – over and over again – forgetting the complexity and depth of how long-standing, trusted network relationships work both ways, either to strengthen or degrade situations.  Beyond direct conversation, there’s much to be said for observing physical behavior and listening to the tone of voice.  If you’re a keen observer (a learned and practiced skill needing continual honing) you can see the body position change, the tone of voice adjust, and in time, determine how confident they are, and just how strong the network relationships really are.

Observations:  Benefits

The higher up the ladder you go, the more critical your communication and observation talents are needed to support  your relationships and networks.  The elegance with which you use these skills can help you gain easier access to key resources or influencers that will strengthen your position.  Just as important, you start to more easily grasp where you can provide value, too.   In reciprocating value or support, “actions do speak louder than words.”  Lack of reciprocity says much about your (and your networks’) real character.  To his dismay, a CEO ran headlong into this when he recently shared that, when he needed support, he saw which relationships were really strong and who his real friends were.  There’s no better way to learn the truth about someone than to call his or her character into question.

Another example for me of both positive and negative character, came up when I attended a network gathering last year.  During the cocktail reception, a corporate chairman and I had launched into an enjoyable and lively discussion.  Shortly thereafter, three other members joined our conversation.  One person later joined the group and seemed, almost desperately, to want to monopolize the conversation.  Slowly, but unmistakably, he began to literally elbow me out of the circle.  I was fascinated to be the focus of his behavior and watched for signs of how the other participants would react.  The chairman, with whom I’d originally been speaking, also noticed. He gently took my arm and brought me physically back into the conversation.  As I said, one’s good character, and the flawed character of the other were quietly revealed.  Needless to say, it’s an experience that will remain with me, and expanded my respect and relationship with another.

The Cloistered:  You’re probably one of them. 

I’m still floored at how often CEOs, board members, and senior executives don’t take the time, or place enough value and focus on strategically building, maintaining, and “vetting” their relationships and communications with their networks.  Time and again I’m asked to help executives, who are looking to serve on boards, to either network, learn how to network, or even help them find another CEO or board post.  But I’m rarely asked by these same people, “How can I help you?” It happens so seldom that, when it does  happen, the individual automatically rises in my estimation.

So let’s circle back to the conversation between the two store clerks.  How we manage our communications face-to-face and otherwise, support and diversify our relationships, and network  all strengthen our ability to serve the boards and companies we work with.  Continually working on nurturing and learning from our relationships also increases our own knowledge, competence, and ability to serve at a higher plain of professionalism.

The next time you tap someone in your network, be it face-to-face or some other way, I hope you’ll remember what I shared here and use it to your advantage. And to help those who’ve helped you, too.

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