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Networking within Your "Tribe"

Anthropologists tell us that from the beginning we humans have been communal creatures. When food was low, our prehistoric ancestors came out of their caves and formed hunting and gathering “workgroups.” Later, the hunters and gatherers came together around the “fire ring” to trade resources so that each would have what he needed. In addition to exchanging necessities, they shared their stories—discoveries were made, people shared valuable tips about how to do their jobs more efficiently—and the tribe advanced. We are naturally wired to work well in groups.

Compare your office to the world of our cave-dwelling predecessors. As members of a “business tribe,” people enjoy trading stories and sharing discoveries. Yet, because our work world has advanced, most workers are now highly specialized. We have a tendency to remain isolated in our individual “caves” instead of interacting with our colleagues around the “fire ring.”

So, how can we maximize the time that we spend with our co-workers so that together we can advance our business? How can we use our corporate meetings and even social events to network “within the tribe” in order to build alliances that will collectively help us attain higher levels of individual and corporate performance? Here are some ideas:

I. Company Meetings

One common “fire ring” opportunity is the company- or departmentwide meeting. As much as we may dread them, these meetings are necessary for developing a vision and setting the course. Wise companies will also strategically use them for opening up lines of communication. How can we maximize these times for internal relationship building?
  • The corporate board report
    Many companies now recognize the tremendous internal networking and relationship marketing opportunities provided at their annual meetings. Capitalizing on the fact that every employee is gathered in the same place at the same time, they have transformed the typical required-for-all-employees “show and tell” or “state of the department” managerial address into a cross-cultural, enjoyable “relationship marketing” occasion.

    Several months ago a corporation invited me to conduct a workshop on the "How-to’s of Internal Networking” for employees from many different departments and job levels. I approached the assignment with the thought that although they come from different cultures within the company, they were all like-minded people with a shared interest in their workplace’s goals and mission. I was able to discuss the opportunities and advantages of meeting and developing associations with people across the firm, regardless of their position or title. I shared the observation that many times people tend to work in their own isolated “silos” or “caves,” cut off from the wide range of resources available to them in other parts of their organization. Once I laid the foundation for why internal relationship marketing is so essential for company growth, I ended the session with an exercise called “random acts of networking kindness” that facilitated some immediate connections.

  • Random acts of networking kindness
    Here’s how the exercise worked: Employees dropped their business card into a bowl. On their way out of the meeting, they were asked to draw a card from a different division or department, call that person an hour later, introduce themselves, ask what the other's goal was from the meeting or session, and then set a time for a follow-up call in two weeks. When the system works correctly, two calls are made--you make one and someone else calls you. This is a great way to get your “hunter” and “gatherer” work groups to start talking and learning from each other. I always get positive feedback after these sessions about how this simple exercise opened up cross-departmental communication and often made a difference in the bottom line. Try this the next time you have all of your hunters and gatherers together in one place.

II. Company Social Events

In addition to company or departmental meetings, work-sponsored social events present some of the best opportunities to network with different groups from within the tribe. Use this time to de-stress and to build quality relationships. Two common examples of these corporate fun-fests are the company picnic and the holiday party.

  • The company picnic
    Does going to a company picnic mean we take “business casual” to a whole new level? Should we fire off water balloons at our co-workers or soak them with squirt guns? I hope the word “no” popped into your head just now. The point is, business is business, no matter what the setting. However, there are ways to relax and enjoy the company picnic, while remaining professional and making some important internal connections:

Pass the relish
You’re standing in line for hot dogs and find yourself next to the CEO. He or she may not even know your name. You may think, “This is my shot to make a great impression.” So you jump into a dissertation on the company’s stock price or how you plan to reduce expenses in the coming year. Bad idea! This is not the time to discuss any serious business issues. To attempt to do so would place both you and the CEO in an uncomfortable position. On the other hand, this could be a great time to introduce yourself and say, “I’m so and so and I work in the marketing department. I just want you to know that I love being a part of the company. By the way, I really enjoyed hearing you speak at the sales meeting last week and took your comments to heart. Thanks for being so involved in the company.” Then smile and move on.

—Play the guest interviewer
After you’ve eaten and have put down your plate, have informal “interviews” with people in other departments whom you do not see every day. In a casual manner, ask the basics, “What department are you with? How long have you been with the company? What brought you to the company?” Then you can move on to noninvasive personal questions such as, “Where do you live? How is the commute to work?” By asking such questions you’ll get to know about people in your company and you might even make a new internal friend.

  • The holiday party
    According to a recent survey, each American worker will attend an average of 2.7 office parties during the holiday season. Now that you know you’ll be spending a least a couple evenings eating Cheez Wiz and avoiding mistletoe, how can you make the most of these company galas?

—Limit libations
Nothing spells bad year-end party like too much a-l-c-o-h-o-l. Remember, holiday party disasters don’t just last a night—they follow you to the office. And people have long memories. You want to be remembered for your stellar job performance, not for your performance with a lampshade on your head. You’ll make better connections and a better impression if you remain sober.

—Ho, ho, ho, it’s time to build connections
Make sure to connect with not only those in your daily workgroup, but also those with whom you only communicate only on occasion. I have found that it is at these times that we make those “serendipitous” cross-company connections that bear fruit over the coming year and beyond.

—Bring Mr(s). Claus
This is the number one way to make the most connections at holiday parties. If your company permits it, bring your spouse. Your loved one can be a real asset in networking with people at the workplace as you simply introduce him or her to people and find common ground to talk about.

The Tribe That Thrives

Since prehistoric times, people have relied on internal relationship marketing to advance their cultures. When you let others in your tribe know who you are, what cave you’re in, and what you do there, you and your company will advance faster than those who don’t spend much time around the fire ring. The end result will be growth opportunities for you, more robust internal teams, and a stronger overall “tribe” for everyone to live and work in.