Friday, November 16, 2007

Reifying HCI (Part 2) - Personal Connections

Personal connections are a key in any field - design, the academy, business. Everyone admits this publicly, but i've noticed a slight negative subtext in conversations where it became clear that folks still don't like the idea that "it's not what you know but who you know." This subtext betrays a feeling that, while folks know that personal connections are important, they still want to land the job or the deal or the publication completely on their own merit without having leveraged a connection to get it done.

This notion is complete hog-wash. The myth (except in a few edge cases) of the iconic, seminal designer or author is just that - a myth - that we hold dear because we want to think that we are important, special and unique. Except for a few edge cases, this is not the case. If i really were the iconic, seminal designer or author, i would have no need to feel negatively toward the notion of personal connections at all. In fact, those connections would be coming to me.

There is a rising need for personal connections, in my opinion, and it is due to 2 increasingly necessary things:

  1. Trust (Digitization makes it increasingly easy to fake resumes, plagiarize work and purchase degrees. Trust is at a premium)
  2. Character (Character is what ensures that a person will thrive in any environment - regardless of the changes around them - much more than will a skillset. See my previous post
about what VC's look for in a team)
The importance of these things - and the resulting importance of personal connections - occurred to me again yesterday as i sat in a meeting with the Managing Partner of a VC firm to discuss BigTreeTop. Her fund is in the Life Sciences, and therefore not a potential investor. She graciously offered, nonetheless, to take the time to give me her advice and perspective - which was the end result of a long line of personal connections that served, for her, as a guarantee of my reputation (whatever that is), and as a signification of my character. The string of connections goes back over 10 years, and includes former employers, family friends and colleagues. Without those connections, no amount of genius would have gotten me into her office, since her time is extremely valuable, and she wouldn't have known me from a hole in the wall.

For those of us in any profession (academic, business, interpretive dance), there are therefore a few imperatives that will serve to grow and keep connections that can later serve as a guarantee for those wondering if they should take the time to meet with us.

  • Be Genuinely Interested - Never, ever use people for their "connection value." The human brain can detect all but the most clever forms of sycophantry in an instant. Be genuinely interested in the people you meet. Find common ground and explore it - both as a connection opportunity and a chance to learn.
  • Keep Bridges - Never, ever burn a bridge from your end. When leaving an organization, don't leave them until you can leave on good terms. One of my former employers is now an investor in BigTreeTop, and another is funding work in the School of Informatics.
  • Connect with Fish of all Sizes - There is no such thing as "little fish who grow up to be big fish." People are connected along many different dimensions. I have seen many instances where the administrative assistant of a corporation is among the most influential in hiring decisions, by virtue of his or her direct, conversational access to the CEO.
  • Character is Key - With forward-thinking folks, character trumps skill every time. If your network knows that you have character (adaptability, integrity, etc), they will want to connect with you. If they aren't sure, they won't. Anyone can gain skills - and pretty quickly. Character is harder to come by - and therefore more imperative.


Rishi said...

some great points Christian! I'll add humility to this. Maybe its fashioned as part of character or being genuine, but I think its deserves a separate mention in itself.

Its the one thing that will keep making you self-reflect at all times.

Christian Briggs said...

yes, humility is a definite. especially a realistic humility based on a continuing and honest assessment of one's self. i've seen false humility before, and it's really just another brand of self-focus (in a weird sort of way).