Fans of Robert B. Parker’s novels will recognize Spenser and Hawk as two characters that appeared in a series of crime stories (and not the name of a law firm). As I was rereading one of the earlier books, I realized that the two of them were at the center of a network that took years to build. The strength of their connection was based on shared interests, similar ethics, work they performed together and their willingness to help each other in any situation, without question. They had some “shared” connections and were always willing to introduce other contacts, as needed. Although they probably would not have said this, their actions demonstrated their willingness to help anyone who helped them. Spenser and Hawk understood that reciprocity is essential in creating an effective network.

What does this have to do with your networking efforts? If you have read my previous columns, you know that I believe relationships are central to your success at business development. To switch gears from the fictional to the research realm, it may interest you to hear that studies of star performers have shown that their success is due not to their intelligence, but to their ability to build relationships with a network of people. In Daniel Goleman’s book, “Emotional Intelligence,” he cites studies that show that “things go more smoothly for the standout because they put time into cultivating good relationships with people whose services might be needed in a crunch as part of an instant ad hoc team to solve a problem or handle a crisis….a more sophisticated view of informal networks shows that there are at least three varieties: communications webs – who talks to whom; expertise networks, based on which people are turned to for advice; and trust networks.”

In other words, these informal networks are based on reciprocal relationships. If you want to leverage your own network of contacts, consider what you can offer in terms of introductions, advice, referrals and other help.

Live Networking vs. Social Networking

As you think about how to build your own network of contacts, remember that the best rainmakers have both an external network of current and potential clients and referral sources, and an internal network of people who are willing to work with them on a variety of matters. They seem to know everyone and have immediate access to whatever resources they need. Although the rainmakers at smaller firms may not have large internal networks to tap, they often partner with firms who offer different services, as well as other professional service providers. The more extensive your network is, the more likely you are to generate business.

Depending on your age and your degree of introversion or extroversion, you may prefer virtual networking to real life networking. Given my second rule of business development (it’s a face to face activity), I recommend a combination of both. And whether you’re considering live networks or online sites to join, think about your marketing strategy. Who is your target audience and what marketing messages do you need to communicate to them? What can you contribute to the members of those networks?

For example, if you are a member of the CMCP discussion group on LinkedIn, you can see who the other members are, who posts messages about diversity issues, and who responds to posts. That discussion group has created the three communications webs identified by Goleman and has become a valuable resource for its members.

Online sites allow a degree of transparency that isn’t as accessible in live networking situations. They allow you to deliver communications to your network as efficiently as possible. However, there is no substitute for the connections that are formed by in person meetings, so it’s important to balance virtual contacts with live ones. And as Spenser and Hawk knew, the best networking meetings occurred over a cup of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.