I recently had occasion to use the Introduction feature on Linked In not once, but three times. And in all three cases, the mechanism failed me. For those of you who have not yet used this feature, it allows you to find someone in your immediate network who has a connection to a person you want to reach. In theory, it should work a treat. But here’s what I learned:

1) You need to have a first degree connection with your contact.

2) Your contact needs to have a first degree connection with the person you want to reach.

In all three of my attempts, the connections were too remote (2nd degree) to be of use. The only exception was that one of my contacts was a recruiter, so she was willing to pick up the phone and forward my information through traditional channels. But it would not have worked through Linked In.

This got me thinking about the parallels with the 19th century custom of using “letters of introduction”. If you were traveling to another city or country in 1850 (to pick a year at random) you would canvass your friends to see who knew someone in that city (hopefully important, rich people) , and request letters of introduction. You needed those letters because in the 19th century, you couldn’t meet new people who were out of your immediate social set without those letters. And you definitely weren’t going to meet a mover-and-shaker (if you were not one) without a letter of introduction. While we are not as constrained these days, I do think that there are legacies of these social norms, and you can see them appear on Linked In.

So what can you do to improve your success rate on introductions?

1) Thoughtfully expand your own network (with people who know and respect you) so that you have the largest possible number of first degree contacts.

2) A corollary to point 1: if someone requests to connect to you who you don’t know, make a point of spending 10-15 minutes on the phone with that person. That way, you will know something about them, and can refer them a little more meaningfully, if asked to.

3) Be very specific in your introduction requests. Be conscious that your connection will be much more willing to make the introduction if you are not asking for the moon.

4) Guard your own reputation carefully. If you are not comfortable making an introduction, don’t! Remember, on Linked In, in many ways you are the company you keep.

In some ways, this experience has made me more determined to identify, catalog and master the emerging etiquette on Linked In. But it also made me realize that in so many ways, everything old is new again.

Good old Socrates! Remember him? No?  I can’t imagine why. He lived a little while back: from  469 BCE to 399 BCE. Nonetheless, if you are a regular Linked In groups participant, you can experience the Socratic method of instruction regularly. Socrates taught that the best way to fully explore a subject was to answer a question through dialogue. The Socratic method taught students to work through the nuances of an idea or proposition through rebuttal. According to Richard Hooker, “Socrates wrote nothing because he felt that knowledge was a living, interactive thing”. (For more go to www.wsu.edu/~dee/GREECE/SOCRATES.HTM).

“Living and interactive”–doesn’t that sound like the best Linked In group? I am currently following a discussion in one of my groups, where there have been over 50 responses to the original question, and most of the answers have advanced my knowledge of the subject. Your high school child or college kid is certainly getting this type of dialogue in his/her classroom, but where, as a working adult, can you access it? Professional and networking groups can provide it, in theory, but usually the meetings are too short, or the presentations are too one-way to further deep discussion. It is so easy for the ‘entrenched professional’ (nice term for overworked, over committed worker bees) to deal with today’s fire, without worrying about tomorrow’s drought. We all know we need to exercise more, eat less, and keep up with our professional and technical knowledge.

But in these days of ‘build your brand’ there is often not enough focus on ‘strengthening your formula’ (what is in the bottle, not what’s on the label). Actively following and participating in Linked In groups can expose you to new perspectives and new ways to present your own views. Unlike diet and exercise, finding and following a couple of Linked In groups is fairly painless–you can ‘surf’ them while on boring conference call. After you have found a couple that are sympatico, make a point of posting every once in a while. Yes, someone might take issue with your view, but if it is a Socratic group, you will learn from the experience. And despite the amusing bumper sticker, that’s not all bad.




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