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Chronicles from a Caribbean Cubicle

2/04/2008

Weak Networking Skills in the Caribbean

What does it mean to say that a Caribbean manager has "weak networking skills"?

Does it mean that he or she is not charming and charismatic? Does not speak well? Does not follow-through? Is unwilling to take risks? How would you measure the ultimate result --a working, Caribbean network-- and the skill that it takes to build one?

First of all, it might be useful to distinguish what a Caribbean network is, versus a local network. For an island-dweller, a local network is one that ends where the sea starts.

For example, a Jamaican with only local "contacts" would know very few professionals outside their home country, in other countries in the region. A Caribbean network, by contrast, is one that reaches into several Caribbean islands.

Also, a well-built network would have more than mere acquaintances, or a list of names that someone has met "once at a party". The quality of these contacts would be built on more than just having a name and address. It would also include a professional impression, or personal brand -- something that is known about the person that sets them apart from other professionals. They may not be recognized on the street, but their ideas or accomplishments are are known by the persons in the network.

After all, anyone can build a list of key names and addresses from the Yellow Pages. A real network has more than just contact information (although this information must be included).

Someone with weak networking skills would be able to see it in the results -- a "local" network would be evidence. So would a network that does very little of the personal branding that a network is designed to use.

But, everyone starts from the same place, with no network to speak of. That's ground zero.

What would be the essential skills to develop in order to become a good networker?

Skill #1: Personal Branding
A good networker is able to think of themselves as a brand, and of their strengths as specific attributes to be emphasized. They also know that they must brand themselves around the areas that they have a true passion about.

Skill #2: Time Management
While everyone claims to understand how to network, few do the things that they know they should be doing. The common complaint I hear is -- "I don't have enough time."

Skill #3: Internet Relationship Building
This has nothing to do with a skill at a particular technology. Instead, it means understanding how relationships are created and sustained in cyber-space between working colleagues, sellers and buyers, writers and readers, Facebook friends, members of a discussion list and between people who make up different groups on the net.

Someone who is very weak at this skill would insist that "I have to see them face to face in order to trust them, or to do business with them." The world has changed vastly from that restrictive way of doing business, and someone who is not good at building internet relationships will simply be cut off from a great deal of business.

Skill #4: Technology Shortcuts
The cost of trying to build regional working relationships is just too high, and the cost of using the internet is too low to ignore as the alternative.

The cost and time of air travel and communication across the Caribbean region makes it expensive to use these methods to build relationships. A round -trip flight between the 2 largest economies, Trinidad and Jamaica, takes some 12 hours in the air, plus 8 hours to be transfer from airport to home or office. That's 20 hours, at least. The flight costs between US$350 and US$500.

A phone call for an hour costs some US$16. By contrast, Skype can be used to make an internet phone call for free.

The cost of sending a Christmas card from Trinidad to Jamaica is approximately US$0.90. The cost of an e-card or email is free.

These shortcuts are vital to use in order to break the barrier that these costs have created.

Skill #5: Having a Message, Getting It Out
Weak networkers are unskilled at getting their message out to the region. The weakest networkers, however, haven't even developed a message to send. They have not spent the time to find something unique to say, so even when they are given the opportunity to speak, or write publicly the little they have to say is pedestrian, and routine.

The best networkers are also not concerned about "people stealing their stuff",which would result in them keeping their messages to themselves -- hoarded someplace on their hard-drive. They use multiple channels to get their messages out to other professionals across the region.

Skill #6: Being Persistent and Regular
Weaker networkers may do all of the above things, but they only do them once. When nothing happens, they stop. The best networkers have found ways to continue to be motivated, knowing that they are building an asset for the long-term, rather than just a short-term opportunity. They continue to use their networking skills to expand their authentic interests. If for example, they have an interest in orchids, they merely expand that interest to the orchids of other Caribbean countries. They make friends in the other countries who share the interest, and get to know their friends as well. In this way, they stay interested.

Also, they find ways to make regular contact, ensuring that their messages reach the people who are in their network on a regular basis. They simply refuse to "drop off the radar". For some professionals, the challenge they have is managing their time in order to do these activities. For others, they just don't know that they should be doing these things.

Skill #7: Demonstrating an Interest in Other People
While some people have the gift of being charismatic, this is not really a skill related to networking. Neither is looking the part, or being well-spoken, or being smart. Much more important than these attributes is the ability to be authentically interested in other people, and what they are interested in themselves. This takes a level of awareness and commitment, plus some insight into the unique nature of human beings.

In conversation, the networker knows that people who feel as if they are being heard, and appreciated, are much more likely to enjoy the conversation than those who are subject to the networker's jokes, brilliance or resume. Giving others the gift of one's attention when the networker is tired, distracted or bored is a skill worth learning, by itself.

Weak networkers just cannot be bothered.

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