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Forget Networking. How to Be a Connector

Forget Networking. How to Be a Connector
Image credit: Photo courtesy of Josh Bycel
Connector Josh Bycel raised $50,000 in three weeks to fund a medical clinic at a refugee camp in Darfur.

We all know people like them, people who seem to know everyone. They're always able to help -- or if they can't, they know someone who can. You meet them for the first time and in 15 minutes, you're talking with them like you're childhood friends. They're successful, smart and funny, with a likable touch of self-deprecation. And they're interested in everything.

Who are they? Connectors. Take Maryam Banikarim, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Gannett, publisher of USA Today. She has a perfect job for a connector -- she helps link Gannett's various newspapers and media outlets "and bring the pieces together."

"I like people and am genuinely curious," says Banikarim, 42. "I like stories and want to make connections. But I didn't know the word for it until my husband read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and said, 'I finally have a word for you -- a connector.' "

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As Gladwell writes, "sprinkled among every walk of life . . . are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors." Gladwell describes them as having an ability to span many different worlds, subcultures and niches.

Traits such as energy, insatiable curiosity and a willingness to take chances seem to be the common thread among connectors -- as well as an insistence that connecting is not the same as networking.

"Networking I see as a means to an end," says Jill Leiderman, executive producer of the late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live. But connecting, she explains, is about using a genuine love of meeting people and making friends to engage and assist one another.

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Connectors show a willingness to venture outside their comfort zones. For example, comedy writer Josh Bycel (shown top) visited a Darfur refugee camp six years ago, and on the way home he came up with the idea of raising money for a medical clinic for the camp. In three weeks, he had collected $50,000.

That idea grew into a nonprofit called OneKid OneWorld, which aims to connect schools in the United States with those in Kenya and other developing countries to provide everything from books to clean water.

"I'm a comedy writer. I don't know anything about building schools," says Bycel, 40, who lives in Los Angeles. "But I'm interested in learning. You need to get out and make connections outside of your own world. Being interested in lots of different things by definition allows you to be a connector."

The willingness to reach out to someone you don't know is crucial to the art of connecting, and especially important in uncertain economic times. Those who are in mid-career and may have worked for one company for years should learn connecting skills before they need them.

For instance, most people's natural inclination is to seek out friends at meetings and mealtimes. Banikarim says not to do that. "It's easy to sit with someone you know," she says. "It's hard, but more interesting, to sit with someone you don't know. This is not like high school. It's not just the losers who don't have somewhere to sit."

It may seem as if connectors are born, not made, but that's not necessarily true. Banikarim was forced to learn to reach out to people from an early age. She moved with her family from Iran to Paris in 1979, then to Northern California, where there wasn't an Iranian community. "I was often that new kid," she says. When she started college at Barnard, "I knew it was either sink or swim. The first week of school, I joined every club and went to every meeting. I ended up as freshman class president."

Joining clubs and organizations is a terrific way to find like-minded people, but only go when you have an interest -- and don't attend endless networking get-togethers. Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone, says he has never been to an official networking event. Instead, he advises, join organizations that focus on the events and activities you love.

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"I have a friend who is the executive vice president of a large bank in Charlotte," he writes in his book. "His networking hotspot is, of all places, the YMCA. He tells me that at 5 and 6 in the morning, the place is buzzing with exercise fanatics like himself getting in a workout before they go to the office. He scouts the place for entrepreneurs, current customers and prospects."

Of course, when you're walking into that first meeting or class and facing a bunch of strangers, the instinct is to flee. That's all right. The point is not to ignore the fear, but acknowledge it -- and then work through it.

"I sort of just run into fear, as I run into chaos," says Banikarim, whom The New York Post named one of the 50 most powerful women in New York City in 2008 when she worked at Univision. "You breathe deep, and you have to remember that everyone is scared."

Perhaps one of the most important attributes of a connector is a willingness to help and to reach out even if there is no obvious or immediate payback.

That means thinking long-term. Jen Singer is the founder of the blog Mommasaid.net, author of five books, a Pull-Ups spokeswoman and an undeniable connector. "The biggest mistake people make is they think 'if I help this person, that will happen immediately.' We have to stop thinking in linear terms," she says.

Helping others out doesn't mean you can't hold some things back. Singer, 44, uses the word "coopetition" -- a combination of competition and cooperation -- to describe her philosophy. "I think this generation understands you share, but also protect your own interests -- you don't give a key to everything you have. It's a line you have to learn to walk."

Finally, a connector also occasionally has to disconnect. Leiderman says her boyfriend "has taken away my Blackberry so I can super-connect with him."

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SecondAct contributor Alina Tugend writes the award-winning ShortCuts column for The New York Times and published her first book,Better by Mistake, in 2011.

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