“Here in Brazil we don’t network — we make friends.”
I remember the first time I heard this phrase. As I replayed the words in my head, I recalled the journey that led to the launch of our first South American office. I thought about the business relationships my partner and I formed; the friendships we made along the way. So much of our work in Brazil doesn’t feel like work, but rather like building bonds.
In the U.S., professional networking has a mixed connotation (at least to me it does). Indeed, for many, the word conjures images of large, impersonal conference centers, unwieldy client management software and pesky emails. However, my experience in Brazil taught me, networking — when viewed as relationship building — can be an incredibly valuable skill. We just need to change the way we think about it personally and professionally.
As the co-founder of an education company, I urge families to consider the school’s alumni network when selecting a university for their child. Reframing the conversation about college admissions in this way better prepares students for the workforce. They recognize the school they attend is not just a place to acquire knowledge, but to build relationships. The same holds true for professionals who attend graduate school or any other form of higher education. It’s essential to ask yourself not only what you will learn, but also who you will meet there.
Change the way you network
There are few things that bother me more than scripted cold emails or forced interactions. Whether you meet someone at a conference, via an introduction or on a networking app, always follow up with a personalized approach. Reference specific points from the conversation, and continue to keep your exchanges personalized from there on out.
Networking is not a one-size-fits-all activity, so your approach shouldn’t be either. When you think of networking as an opportunity to make friends, it’s only natural to share information and exchange knowledge. Think of what would pique the interest of each one of your contacts. This way, when you stumble across an interesting article or learn something new, you’ll know just who to share it with. If you keep your contacts top of mind, they’ll reciprocate.
Leverage the right networking tools
Years ago, at my company, we attempted to implement Salesforce, a customer success platform with CRM as their flagship product. Given the personalized and customized nature of our interactions we found we needed a system that was–you guessed it–more personalized and customizable. So, we made one of our own.
For my co-founder and me, it’s important that the platforms we use offer maximum flexibility and accessibility on the go. With this in mind, we created a Trello board — which we designed according to our own needs — to track our interactions with our clients and prospects: who they are, how we met them and when we were last in touch.
Most importantly, the very exercise of creating such a system forces you to be thoughtful about how you’re building relationships. No matter what networking apps or CRM tools you use, it’s essential to keep your contacts organized. Just be sure to choose one that works for you.
Reframing my sense of how networking works has transformed me from a skeptic into an enthusiast, albeit perhaps a little late. I truly believe that starting a conversation about networking and its value in education will change the culture that surrounds it. In the process it will create more thoughtful future business leaders.
Just think of all the new friendships waiting to be made.
This article has been edited.