People are always surprised to hear that I don’t network on airplanes. Like crispy sweetbreads, Crocs, and cookie dough ice cream, the concept sounds good and others like it, but it’s just not for me. This wouldn’t be so unusual– lots of people I know prefer DirectTV to direct interaction with fellow fliers–except for one thing: I write and speak about networking for a living.
I’m the rare networking expert who doesn’t network nonstop and sometimes does eat alone. Don’t get me wrong, I do love to network. But I love dark chocolate too, though I’d never dream of having it for every meal.
I’m at peace with this. In fact, if one message has resonated most with the audiences I’ve spoken to for the last 5 years, it’s the notion that you don’t have to network all the time to be successful with building relationships. The corporate librarians I prepped for their annual conference in Seattle last year were particularly thrilled to hear this.
Plane time has been sacred to me since the early ’90s when I graduated from business school and joined a big consulting firm. My personal time was highly compressed because of weekly travel to client locations—Sunday nights there, Friday nights back—and long hours on site to meet aggressive project deadlines. So as soon as I was off the clock, I was really off the clock.
Though I’ve long left that world behind me, the one thing that did stick was the feeling that airplane time was my time. I’ve found there are plenty of opportunities to network on terra firma, but precious few four-hour blocks with no phone, no email, and no guilt.
When I do choose to network, though, I always try to make the most of it. Like when I flew to Austin to speak at the Texas Conference for Women. The evening before, I arrived at the hotel with just enough time to brush my hair before dutifully reporting to the VIP cocktail reception. On the day of the conference, I led a 7:45 a.m. networking pep talk for a blurry-eyed, pre-caffeinated crowd, spoke in front of 900 people at a breakout session at 10:15, gave one-on-one networking coaching to conference attendees all day in the exhibit hall, co-emceed an end-of-day networking reception, and plunged into BBQ ribs with the conference directors at dinner. I met a ton of people and had lots of follow up to do once I got back home.
By the time I settled into my window seat on the flight back to Newark the next day, a venti iced coffee in one hand and a trashy spy novel in the other, I was done schmoozing. Still, because I had been in hyper-networking mode for the last 36 hours, I did look up when a trim gentleman with George Clooney salt-and-pepper hair sporting a maroon golf shirt, pressed khakis and a navy blazer slid into the seat next to me.
For a brief moment, my mind did the mental calculus. Could this person have the power to alter my destiny with the offer of a lifetime? A famous TV producer looking for the star of his next talk show? A Fortune 500 CEO eager to buy 150,000 copies of my book for his entire company? I knew I’d never find out unless I started the conversation. Yet, I also knew that once I opened the door, it would be over.
I’m really good at asking questions and getting others to talk. Not so good at getting them to stop. And that’s my dilemma every time I fly.
Less about the inputs – more about the outputs
So I turn back to David Baldacci and his CIA assassins, and leave my networking once again to the places I do it best: at big conferences and seminars, whether I’m presenting or not, and online at Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Wherever an oxygen mask has no chance of dropping down from the ceiling.
As I teach my audiences, readers, and coaching groups, networking isn’t about the inputs, but the outputs. If you need or want to put in lots of time to get the results you’re looking for, go for it. But if balance is important to you, then learn how to make the most of your efforts so you can enjoy a well-earned break whenever you need it.
Liz Lynch is founder of the Center for Networking Excellence and author of Smart Networking: Attract a Following In Person and Online (McGraw-Hill, 2008). She writes, speaks and consults to experienced professionals on how to seamlessly integrate social media and traditional networking to save time and accelerate results.