Successful schmoozing

Soon after Scott Ladewig rolled out Windows 2000 and Active Directory at Washington University, he became the big man on campus. Ladewig, manager of networking and operations for Washington University’s School of Business, was in high demand among his peers for implementation advice.

“Department managers were calling, saying, ‘Hey, you’ve done this, what do I need to watch out for?’ Getting known for a particular expertise lets you make yourself a resource,” says Ladewig from the school’s St. Louis campus.

Ladewig, too, benefits from talking shop with colleagues in the IT industry. In January he polled attendees at a Dell Computer Corp. seminar for insight into supporting the vendor’s laptops. He decided to forward any problem with students’ laptops to the vendor if the university’s IT pros couldn’t solve it within 15 minutes.

Far more than simply providing social interaction, business networking helps you build reciprocal relationships for sharing knowledge and skills. Professional conferences, trade association meetings, cocktail receptions and classes provide many chances to strike up conversations and establish professional contacts. But to make the most of potential networking opportunities, IT executives say it’s best to have a plan.

Bruce Lummis, vice-president of telecommunications for home shopping giant QVC Inc. in West Chester, Pa., forms an agenda for picking the brains of others at annual conferences. “The first thing I do is pull out the attendee list to see who’s there, [and find] particular issues I’ve heard of or a company doing something interesting,” he says.

Ladewig scans the name tag table when he arrives at an event and prefers small industry venues for getting to know folks well over the course of two days. “In between sessions, we’re all just waiting,” he says. “It’s easy to talk when you have something in common and are following the same track.”

Technical classes are good places to hear about how others are using technology. “They may be doing something we may want to try or see,” says George Lewis, MIS director for Rural Health Services Consortium in Rogersville, Tenn.

What’s more, some of the best networking encounters take place at the podium, according to Jerry Connelly, IT director for Galaxy Scientific Corp. in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. “It’s good just to hang around the back of a group at the podium after sessions. They may have the same problem that I’m dealing with and maybe we have something to share,” Connelly advises.

“Watch for people who ask the presenter questions. IT folks are problem solvers,” says John Bruggemam, IS director at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. “You definitely learn more from the bad than the good, and sharing misery is an easy way to break down the communication barrier.”

When Hal Adams attends an event, the IS director for National Semiconductor Corp. in Portland, Maine, seeks out the people who appear most interested in the topic. This tactic paid off at a vendor seminar when a fellow attendee gave him “an enormous amount of information I wouldn’t get otherwise. I always want to hook up with someone who’s been in the trenches,” he says.

Wherever you go to forge new business relationships, follow up is key. Jot notes on the back of business cards, scan cards into a database back at the office or enter contact information in your PDA. Write, call or e-mail contacts within 24 hours of your initial meeting if possible to share resources or schedule a follow-up discussion.

“If there’s a common interest, there will be some form of follow-up communication,” Adams says. “I have called someone even after a two-year lapse.”

Ray Theberge, vice-president of IS for Office Resources in Boston, likes the ease of using e-mail to keep in touch with colleagues. “After 5 o’clock, when I’m sorting papers I find moments to get back to people by sending an article on a topic we’ve discussed,” he says.