My active, type-A personality, over-extended 70+-year-old parents visited me last weekend. They were lamenting about how they really need to cut back on all of their commitments and activities and just have more down-time. (Mind you, my parents are always on-the-go and wouldn’t ENJOY doing nothing–they’d just be thinking about what “something” they should be doing.) In addition to being a full-time realtor by day, my mother is an amateur flutist and plays in community bands at least three nights a week. My father, trained as an industrial designer, consults on branding and marketing communications, shows his photography and digital artwork regularly at a number of local galleries (for many of which he’s on the board of directors), and is an active participant in local photography groups. Just hearing their weekly schedule is exhausting, right?
So, when they expressed to me that they were trying to figure out how to reduce their involvement in so many activities so that they can just “be,” I kind of laughed out of skepticism. My father conveyed a story from the previous week: he’d attended a chapter meeting of a local technology start-up organization in which he used to be more active. He said, “It was so great! I hadn’t been there in over a year, but they all remembered me, came up to me, asked what I was working on, etc.” It was then that the lightbulb went on for me. It’s not that my parents are having trouble divesting themselves from their “activities,” it’s that these “activities” are their communities.
It’s critical that we feel connected to our fellow human beings by being a part of communities. (Hey, give me some philosophical latitude– I have a BA in sociology, afterall….) We are part of traditional communities, like our town, our local pool, our church. But we are also part of many, many not-so-obvious communities. In some cases, we don’t even realize that these are our communities. For example, every Wednesday morning I go to a terrific kickboxing class at the gym. Each week I see the same familiar faces, workout and sweat with Lynn, Missy, the French lady, the British lady, the “lady with the daisy outfit,” and that really off-beat woman who’s always on the other side of the room. I don’t know the names of more than four people in this class of 30 or more women, but I feel connected to them. I feel badly when I miss a class because I am concerned that the instructor will take it personally. This kickboxing class is one of my communities.
I’d imagine that my mother feels similarly about her band groups: sure, she knows some of the people well, knows some more by name, but others are just familiar and friendly faces that enjoy music as much as she does. My father is a “people-person” and attending art gallery board meetings, presenting his artwork at openings and problem-solving with his marketing clients energizes him. Being a valued member of these communities does keep my parents busy, but, more importantly, it keeps them connected, fulfilled and growing.
The same is true for business communities. How can your communities help you to connect to relevant prospects and partners, fulfill your intellectual curiosity, and grow your business? Online social networking has increased community engagement, both online and offline. There are more online and offline communities than ever before. No matter what your interest or specialty, Eventbrite, Meetup or LinkedIn can help you find a relevant community. Whether you realize it or not, “shmoozing at a conference or happy hour is–social networking! Whether you’re on Facebook or at a conference, online or offline, in personal communities, or business communities, these community engagement rules will help you maximize the value of your communities.
- Don’t select “activities,” join communities: it could be a relevant industry association, e.g. Food Marketing Institute; a functional interest group, e.g. mobile app developers; or a topic about which you and your company are passionate, e.g. design thinking. Sure, do some shopping around to see what’s out there, but then converge. Rather than perpetually hopping from one networking group this month to another next month, select a community that fuels your soul, that make you feel good, that mirrors the core values of your business. And then..
- Put a stake in the ground: and engage in your community. Truly investing and participating in your community is the only way to truly feel a part of this community and to make valuable connections. Engage as an active participant, not a passive observer. Even if you are an introvert, there are ways for you to get involved that don’t require being a social butterfly.
- Be authentic; don’t be pushy: Investing your time and skills in these communities will pay off over time. While you can’t fake that you can kickbox or play the flute, people DO try to fake their way into business communities. They come to a networking event with sales, sales, sales in mind. Rather than patiently and calmly getting to know the community, they push their way right in, “I am a __(insert: attorney, graphic designer, etc.)___. Do you have any needs in this area? I have done blah, blah, blah. The harder you push, the less likely your return-on-investment.
“And when am I going to find the time for these networking activities?” you may be asking…. Wait a minute–shift your thinking! These are not activities, they are communities. If you’ve truly invested yourself in your community, it will not feel like an obligation to participate. Rather, like my kickboxing class, my mother’s community bands, and my father’s art galleries, you won’t be able to give it up so easily.
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