What’s Jewish About Networking?


Growing up in Manhattan, I didn’t need to drive. But after three years of living in Michigan, where buses and subways were no longer at my doorstep, it was time to learn. I passed my driver’s test (because it didn’t require me to parallel park), and bought a used red-and-white Plymouth Reliant K. My parents quickly insured my purchase with something they knew I would need to support my fledgling skill set – a AAA membership.

I was as new to driving as I was to car ownership and, I must admit, I immediately put my AAA membership to good use. My AAA team helped me learn that it was a bad idea it was to park the car and leave the lights on so you could find the car at night. My AAA team supported me in those pre-GPS days with a Triptik as I made the half-cross-country drive from Michigan to Washington DC for a summer job. And my AAA team found me great deals at hotels, movie theaters, and restaurants.

But AAA isn’t just for drivers on the road. AAA is for anyone looking to steer their life and career in the right direction. How? Through the "Triple A" of networking:

A: Approach (and be Approachable).

A: Ask a Great Question.

A: Add Value.

Like AAA on the road, the AAA of networking will help you get the inside track, find direction in work and life, and yes, help you out in case of emergencies. And what’s more, for those of us who need a little help getting our mitzvah credits, networking is fundamentally Jewish.

"By virtue of their nature, people seek to form communities." Moses Maimonides

So how do we form communities that will work for us and with us? Let’s start at the first A: Approach (and Be Approachable).

Whether you’re networking at breakfast meeting, a party or a conference, you want to make yourself approachable, accessible and inviting. The quickest way to do this is with a warm smile and great eye contact. Research shows that smiling is contagious (there’s finally something we don’t want Purell to kill). Avot D’rabbi Natan says, "Who welcomes his friend with a smile is as one giving him the finest gifts in the world." And what if she isn’t a friend yet? What an easy way to make one!

Great eye contact requires a careful balancing act between too long and too short. Eye contact that is too long is awkward: a stare-down can signify that you’re ready for a brawl in the parking lot or that you’re locking eyes in preparation for locking lips. Neither is appropriate for networking, and eye contact that borders on gawking or glaring labels you as a loose cannon. Probably not what you’re going for to make great business or community connections.

Eye contact that is too short is just as bad. The book of Jeremiah describes these folks: "They have eyes but see not." Or maybe they see, but they are looking for something or someone else. Furtive glances make you look shifty, nervous or like you’re scanning the room for a better deal.

Even if you think there’s someone in the room who may be a better match for your needs and interests, you do yourself and others a disservice by not giving someone the chance to approach – or be approached. Rabbi Meir said: "Look not at the container but at what it contains; there may be a new flask full of old wine, and an old flask that has not even new wine in it." You never know who in the room may uncork a world of possibilities for you.

Nachman of Bratslav attests, "The world is a narrow bridge. The key to crossing it is not to be afraid." How do we traverse that passage? With our second A: Ask a Great Question.

Which question? Any open-ended question that aims to build rapport and learn more. According to Proverbs, "Entrances are wide, exits are narrow" – so your entry into the inner world of the people with whom you are networking can be as wide open as your imagination, but you want to keep the questions relevant and respectful. "How did you decide that you wanted to work in law/Jewish communal service/competitive eating?" is a better entry than "Do you like being a lawyer/Jewish communal service professional/competitive eater?" The first question gets you a story – a bridge to more conversation – while the second question gets you a nod (if you’re lucky). Here are some other great networking questions:

* "What do you do for fun?"
* "What has surprised you about your job?"
* "Who are some of your mentors?"
* "What’s a typical day like for you?"
* "What do you want to be when you "grow up"?" (and say it with a smile)

Which leads us to the final A: Add Value. Too often, we think of networking as our chance to get something rather than give something. Orchot Tzaddikim advises, "A truly generous man is he that always gives, whether it be much or little, before he is asked." I must admit (with both true and false modesty) that I am memorable at networking events primarily for asking this question: "What kinds of connections would be helpful to you?" People are taken aback by my offer of help. They are surprised when I don’t ask for anything in return. And most importantly, they are delighted when I follow up with what I’ve offered.

What can you do to add value?

* Make a professional shidduch
* Pass along an article of interest
* Invite someone to an upcoming event
* Take them out for coffee
* Send a handwritten note

None of these will cost you much in time, money or energy – and any one of these things can make someone else feel special while making you memorable at the same time. As The Tosefta reminds us, "Small coins add up to large sums."

Don’t wait for an emergency before you pull out your AAA card. You can be networking right now to get some career direction, inside connection, and yes, help someone else meet their personal and professional goals too. You’re in the driver’s seat: put your foot on the gas now!

(Want to Add Value right now? Pass this article on to someone else!)

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at www.myjewishcoach.com or www.elevatedtraining.com. Read previous ‘Success’ columns here.