Trust your own instincts, go inside, follow your heart. Right from the start. go ahead and stand up for what you believe in. As I’ve learned, that’s the path to happiness.”
~ Lesley Ann Warren

Last night we had a family backyard campfire evening. We threw wood in the firepit I built out back, lit it up, and settled back to enjoy an evening together.

And here’s where we ran into a bit of a challenge. You see, each of us had a different idea of how to enjoy the campfire. Some of those ways were mutually exclusive. For me, the campfire is a quiet time. It’s a chance for me to sit and stare into the flames and contemplate whatever challenges I’m currently facing or plans I have underway. Sometimes I just sit and stare and think of nothing at all.

My children, on the other hand believe the campfire is a time to sing and dance and tell stories. They are all over the yard catching fireflies, playing games, and laughing and talking at the top of their voices. Of course, all this activity attracts children from neighboring yards so at any time we may have five or more children running around.

My wife is all about the event. She makes sure there is plenty of food for everyone. She welcomes the children and makes sure that any adults who stop by (looking for their children, usually) have a place to sit and something to eat.

Somehow, though, we all get what we need out of the event. I help set out the food and welcome any guests. The children entertain each other and everyone eats well — sometimes with a little help on making the perfect s’more. Eventually, the kids head inside and my wife helps them get ready for bed while I get a few minutes of quiet contemplation. We each have different approaches, but somehow we all get what we need.

In many ways, this is similar to networking. There really is no one right way to perform the networking process. Any approach you take is valid, so long as you aren’t hurting anyone else, are being ethical, and you are getting what you need.

Here are several ideas on how you might personalize your networking process:

  • Meet as many as possible. If you are naturally a social butterfly and love to meet everyone at the party, do so! Walk around. Say hello. Make sure everyone is comfortable and having a good time.
    To make it work: Make sure before you walk in you know who you are trying to meet. When you encounter them, set up an opportunity to talk again in the near future (over coffee or lunch?) before moving on to the next person.
  • Meet only a few or one. If you tend to be quieter or more introverted, establishing strong connections with one person might be more your speed. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you find someone with whom you feel immediate chemistry you can establish strong ties with a deeper conversation.
    To make it work: You are going to have to be very selective on which events to attend. Make sure wherever you are going is likely to have a high density of people whom you want to talk to — your target or those who can connect you to your networking target. That way when you spend the event speaking with only one or two people, you’ve got a high likelihood that they will be a valuable addition to your network.
  • Pair up. You don’t have to go it alone. If you see someone from your network that appears at the same meetings you do, ask if they might be interested in working together to “divide and conquer” the networking tasks. Between the two of you, you can cover more ground and be more likely to meet or have the other person introduce you to the exact people you want.
    To make it work: Of course, first you have to find someone who is willing to partner up. When you find that person the two of you need to agree on a strategy to pursue in your networking efforts, otherwise you might end up only talking with each other. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it may not be bringing you closer to your goals.
  • Skip the formal events. The Chamber of Commerce lunch isn’t the only place to make new professional connections. You could join a non-profit Board. You could network at a pick-up basketball game at the local rec center. You could even make new professional connections at your place of worship, at your kids’ school, or even at a family reunion.
    To make it work: Be aware that you may have to attend more networking opportunities in order to make the serendipitous numbers work out to your favor. Most non-business groups won’t have a significant density of the specific category of people you want to meet.
  • Create your own group. A friend of mine owns a software development company and is always on the lookout for skilled programmers. He actually created a users group for the particular programming languages that his company uses. He gets to know the potential programmers at the regular meetings long before he needs to fill a vacancy.
    To make it work. Obviously, creating your own group is a lot of effort. Factor that in before you take this approach. Also, the group you are creating has to offer some benefit to the category of people you want to join. Your wanting to sell to them doesn’t count as a common interest.

Networking is an absolutely necessary part of a successful personal and professional life. You have no choice there. You do have a choice, though, in how you pursue that effort. So take some time to stare into the campfire and contemplate. With a little thought and creativity, you can come up with your own approach that fulfills your goals while fitting into the way you want to live your life.