Personalizing the Professional

Two words: high school.

How many of you just shuddered? Oh sure, there are those glory days-types whose best years were those in which they joined teams, led cheers, or ruled some other pubescent fiefdom. Whether you were voted friendliest, most likely to succeed, or most likely to go postal—everything then revolved around social roles and interactions (or a painful lack thereof). And most of us—even those who had a level of teenaged social success—well, we’ve seen better days since then and are happy to put that socially overwrought period behind us.

However, whether we like it or not, there are popularity plays out here in the adult world of work. Studies have repeatedly suggested that attractive people earn more than their less attractive peers, though a closer look (pardon the pun) reveals that it is a confident attitude (more often exhibited in beautiful people) that actually leads to greater success. There are also those who are incredibly adept at socializing (via a shared affection for golf, martinis, or what have you) their way up a few rungs of the corporate ladder or into the good graces of a couple of clients.

Yet we all believe—or at least desperately hope—that now that we’re all grown up and our day-to-day activities are ruled more by what we do than what we wear or whose party we get invited to—that social acumen plays less of a role in our success.

Ah well, we can dream, can’t we?

Who you know has pretty much always been as important as what you know in business. Today it is not only important; it is essential and highly visible. Your network will help you get a job, advance within your profession, and solve day-to-day dilemmas. In fact, on a personal level, your social network may make or break you in any of these situations.

However, the social network is no longer something that affects us only on a personal scale. Today, organizations that do not grasp the importance of social interaction risk their viability.

Consider LinkdIn: On a personal-professional level, it can be the way you locate a job or nail it down via a connection in your extended network. It can be the way a potential employer finds you or decides you’ve got the right stuff. As an organization, an effective LinkedIn presence can mean locating potential partners or prospects and promote your events and expertise. However, the most promising social opportunities are outside your own company listing or professional profile. Groups may be one of the best ways to leverage networking opportunities for individuals or organizations alike. Similar to the upside of attending events of yore, LinkedIn Groups bring together those with similar interests and, as with doing so offline, there are ways to maximize Group interaction. In fact, interaction is the key word. Offer news and insights to the group, ask and answer questions, get in there and mix it up: Be a resource, a thought leader, a colleague.

Now Twitter: As a journalist, I am experiencing firsthand how it has supplanted RSS feeds and enewsletters as a way to monitor headlines and breaking news. Filtered through your social network, content discovery gets personal on Twitter. And as a business there are myriad applications. One is to get discovered; I have found that we get a great deal of our traffic via Twitter (as well as LinkedIn and Facebook). Other valuable applications of Twitter to business include real-time CRM and sentiment monitoring. Customers today want to interact (that word again) and they want to do it now; if they don’t find constructive ways to do so, they’ll dish online, so you’d better be listening. Better still, don’t wait for a social media crisis; listen and respond in real time.

When I look at what distinguishes the effective use of these tools for personal or professional objectives, I fear that I have some difficult news to break: Regardless of the tool, success comes down to social skills. While each network has its own subtle distinctions, ultimately the rules boil down to making meaningful connections. While there are those who play a pure numbers game, blindly following and friending simply to get the same in return, in our social interactions we really seek to make real connections with others. That means putting yourself out there, having one-to-one interactions with those in your network, listening and responding, and being genuine and genuinely interested.

While there are now established tools on the market—and promising new ones emerging every day—it is important to accept the painful and exciting truth that social networking is about people, not tools and technology. So put a human face on all of your social media initiatives (as opposed to a logo) and be genuinely human in your interactions to stay tuned in and to keep the customer satisfied. While there will be inevitable heartache and headaches, you’ll find that you earn fans, followers, and maybe even some friends along the way.