They sometimes say that in the business world “your network is your net worth.” There’s a lot of truth in that idea and it’s been that way since, well, probably since commerce was invented centuries ago. What is different now is how we network and the countless ways that we connect. Technology has changed everything: access to your network isn’t a stack of business cards or in a rolodex. (Remember them?) It’s on line. Connecting with the right people is a business imperative for every professional but for those of us in the diversity business community it’s especially so. Companies are always interested in promoting their Supplier Diversity Programs and finding qualified MBEs to work with, and MBE owners are always trying to raise their profile and find opportunities to serve new clients. Social media has expanded the choices for how we network. It’s made it both easier, and occasionally more difficult, to connect with people.
LinkedIn has quickly become the go to online resource for business networking, giving us access to people at our fingertips and the possibility of an introduction or connection with someone we want to know. Its growth is phenomenal and its potential power is impressive but how do you tap into it? How do you make quality connections and begin to develop trusted business relationships? How do you promote yourself and your program in a way that increases your visibility and helps you develop new diversity supplier relationships? It starts very simply with how you decide who to connect with; who you send invitations to and who you will hit the accept button on.
Let’s talk about the bad stuff first. All those requests to connect! Do I know this person? From a conference or was it school or did I used to work with them? Are they just going to immediately bombard me with requests to start using their product or services? (People, this is a LinkedIn NO, NO! Build a relationship before you ever consider a business request.) Oh, it’s an industry colleague or an MBE in our area, maybe they could be useful for me to get to know. Maybe I should accept. How can I tell?
Seriously though, this is what goes through our minds when we see those requests. Yes, there are the negatives but there’s also that recognition of the potential. Luckily there are those that we recognize immediately. However, I am sure many of you have also received that disconnected-connection request for you to accept, the one which includes no message, no introduction, no information on how or if you know them or why you should connect. There are the times you connect with someone only to find irrelevant information sent to you. There are also the instances where someone endorses you without really knowing you, or worse, asks you to endorse them. (People, this is another LinkedIn NO, NO! Only endorse those you really know well and for skills you can judge. I know that’s the kind of endorsement I want!)
All this kind of stuff makes us want to purge our connections now and then and perhaps never hit accept again!
Why Do I Want to Connect With People I Don’t Know
So who do we want to connect with and whose invitations should we accept?
There are those who are very selective and mainly connect only with their immediate colleagues and people they know well and there are those who connect with everyone and anyone. In my role, and I’ll bet in yours as a corporate professional, neither of those is the best option. You want to take advantage of LinkedIn to network with people you don’t know precisely so you can get to know them better and potentially discover a great new MBE supplier. You can also learn from your contacts, sharing and receiving valuable advice and knowledge. A very select contact list isn’t the answer, but you also don’t want to be overwhelmed and connected to hundreds of people who have little to do with your business and are unlikely to ever be hired by your company.
If you don’t personally know the person, ask yourself some questions.
- Are you in the same industry, business or have other commonalities?
- Can you improve your understanding of your business through them?
- Can you learn from them?
- Is their company a supplier of something you need and buy often?
- Might you recommend them to someone else in the future?
These are all good reasons to connect with someone you don’t know but you still want to be discriminating in doing so. You don’t want the possible pitfalls to prevent you from connecting with those who may be valuable to know. How do you determine who is worth connecting with?
How to Evaluate a Potential Connection
First, you can use that initial invitation as a point of screening. If it’s generic, that’s your first clue that this person may not be the professional that you want to connect with. By all means bypass the generic invitation to connect from strangers or those you barely know. If the invitation contains a proper message, that’s a great first indicator. Hopefully they’ve included something that indicates a good reason to connect.
The invitation messages have to be brief though, so you can only learn so much from that. No matter how forthcoming the writer wants to be. There are other clues that will let you know whether this is a person who may be an influential connection and committed to developing a mutually beneficial relationship. Reading their profile carefully is the first step in evaluating a request to connect. First, is their profile complete? An incomplete or sparse profile tells a certain story. Also ask yourself these questions as you review it:
- Is their profile picture professional and business friendly? (Selfies are a NO NO!)
- What are their skills and experience?
- Who are they connected to?
- Do they seem to be selective of who they connect with?
- Are any of their connections professionals in your industry?
- What are they endorsed for and by what type of professionals?
- What professional groups are they a part of?
- What groups on LinkedIn do they belong to?
- Any of the same ones you do?
- What type of community outreach are they involved in?
The answers will help you to determine if you have enough commonalities to make it worthwhile to connect. Remember, this advice is primarily for evaluating people that you don’t know well or at all. Obviously if you know someone, that alone is a reason to accept regardless of meeting any of these criteria. But if you don’t know someone, the primary reason to connect with them is the possibility of mutually benefitting in a business related way. If they aren’t in the same business or industry as you are there is probably not a good reason to connect. Be selective but be informed.
I think that appropriately sharing information with your contacts and professional groups that you belong to is a good thing, a LinkedIn best practice. Learning from industry colleagues is one of the benefits of being on LinkedIn. Ask yourself these questions, both before you accept a request and as a way to evaluate your contacts if you periodically review and cull your contact list:
- Does this person share good information on their company?
- Does this person share educational business or industry content?
- What types of events are they attending? Are they sharing the event opportunities with their community?
- Are they following your business? Are they making an effort to educate themselves on your company culture and involvement?
- Are they providing feedback on your posts if you ask for input? Are they providing meaningful answers? Are they sharing your posts to assist you in getting answers if that would be appropriate?
These are all great ways to evaluate whether someone is seriously committed to developing a “virtual” relationship and wants to understand your business and possibly move that relationship forward, or if they are simply on LinkedIn because everyone else is and want to connect for the sake of it or to try and make a quick sale. We’re an MBE staffing firm specializing in placing technical professionals, so we know what it’s like to get many requests from people we don’t really know. Anytime you connect with someone, it is a reflection of you and your company. No one wants to needlessly risk their reputation nor do we want to waste time with unproductive relationships. It just makes sense to carefully evaluate people to ensure that you are getting the most out of LinkedIn and using your professional network to the utmost advantage.
One of the great benefits to LinkedIn is that you can expand your network without going to a conference or cocktail reception. You can meet other diversity professionals, MBE owners and entrepreneurs, and industry leaders who can help you regardless of where they live and work. It’s really amazing when you think about. It shouldn’t be the only way that you meet people and build your network but it should have an important place in your repertoire.
So, resist the urge to immediately decline those pesky requests, or to see them as pesky at all; evaluate them first. The gems you find will be worth your while! I hope that this information is of value and helps you to better assess your next request to connect. Please share your LinkedIn tips and what you value about your network with me!
Corporate Outreach Manager