How to use Gmail contacts to be a prolific (and generous) networker

How to use Gmail contacts to be a prolific (and generous) networker

Watching a great point guard play basketball is an out-of-body experience. To the untrained eye, they’re just one of five players on the court, tasked with the mundane responsibility of passing and scoring. But when they touch the ball, they become the de facto field general with 360-degree peripheral vision and the ability to anticipate the next five plays. Not to mention grace, fluidity and the most importantly – the ability to make those around them better.

A no-look Michael Jordan pass shows the power of anticipation and making people around you better.
Making others raise their game

How rad would it be to glide through your personal and work life with the situational awareness, the eyes on the back of your head, to light up those around you? But instead of requiring athletic prowess and super-human fast-twitch muscles, all you had to do was open up your Gmail contacts.

The long and compounding game of networking

Networking is fundamentally about making the people around you better (and contrary to popular belief, not about closing the next transaction). Like a point guard, a great networker possesses deep situational awareness of the people around them and the ability to know when and how to get them the damn ball when they’re ready for it.

This could involve making the right introduction, sharing a unique insight, or providing emotional support to get the other person through a dip (or local minimum). With no expectations, a great networker actually morphs into something much more humane: a generous and thoughtful friend.

We all know who plays that role in our lives: these folks are always in the mix of interesting projects making them treasure troves of insight. Serendipity seems to follow them with every step they take. This isn’t a god-given talent, and in fact there are a few tools at your disposal to cultivate that superpower yourself.

A 4-category networking framework

It’s possible to use a thin layer of technology to facilitate this magic. Some think of this as a Personal CRM (even going so far as customizing it in Airtable), others go old school, taking notes on the back of a business card. I’ve used a version of this networking framework for over fifteen years that it’s pretty much become second nature.

The framework consists of a few broad categorizations for each individual: Function, Industry, Passions and Superpowers.

Organize your network by Function, Industry, Passion, and Superpower
These four classifications form the pillar of your Gmail Contact Groups.

The first two categories are job-centric and self-explanatory. Functionally, a person could be a lawyer, COO, data scientist, or salesperson working in industries such as digital media, wealth management, wellness, or consulting.

Passions are where it starts to get spicy and can include hobbies, causes, and other quirky interests including Crossfit, EDM, prison reform, and loving sneakers (i.e. a sneakerhead). And superpowers are where the magic happens. These are unique traits like being a gifted super-connector, storyteller, debater, or a worldly traveler.

Enter Gmail Contact Groups

Here’s where a little known feature hiding in plain sight in your Gmail Inbox can ignite possibility. Google contact groups let you ascribe multiple labels to each of your contacts. So all the tags that map to your network can now be queried as “structured data,” centered around every email address in your contacts.

How to find Google Contacts in your Gmail window
To get to labels, first find the contacts tab

But there’s a bit of a catch. This feature set is clearly not a core part of Google’s offering, so the User Experience (UX) is terrible. Thankfully, there’s a free chrome extension that plugs directly into your Gmail and can circumvent this crappy design.

Meet FullContact, your new best friend

Head over to the Google Chrome Web Store to grab the FullContact Chrome Extension (a mainstay in our comprehensive guide to productivity and focus). For the purposes of this exercise, FullContact is free. Once you install the extension a new sidebar will appear in the right pane of your Gmail Inbox.

How to open FullContact in your Gmail Window
FullContact let’s you bypass Gmail Contacts (and it’s crappy UX)

As a little side bonus, FullContact will populate your contact’s info by scraping their social profiles from across the web. You can then add individual tags (from the aforementioned four buckets) which will automatically update the Gmail contact labels.

How to add labels from within your Gmail window
Your new (cloud-based) dashboard for labels

And for the fun part, you can send emails to any group by simply typing the group name into the To: Field in the standard compose window:

Access groups by entering them into the "To Field"
Yes, “sneakerhead” is a contact group that I often use

As a recap, here are the steps to start categorizing your contacts using Gmail Contact groups and the FullContact Chrome Extension:

  • Download the FullContact Chrome Extension
  • Expand the extension within your Gmail sidebar (note: you may need to restart your browser)
  • Pull up a contact in the pane by hovering over any email address in Gmail
  • Once selected, you can populate tags that correspond to the contact
  • You can email an entire contact group by typing the group’s name into the compose window (note: consider the BCC)

Time to engineer serendipity

Now you can see how this is a powerful tool to inject connectivity, generosity, and serendipity into the lives of the people you care about the most. I update the tags (richening the data set) multiple times a day: after a meeting, a phone call, or even when that random stroke of inspiration hits during a surfing session. And like the point guard that sees the action long before it happens, you can develop that Spidey Sense to be in service to your network.

I gotchu, homie

Here are some pragmatic ways to put this system into action:

Connect likeminded people: Kind and interesting people like meeting folks of the same ilk (subject to the required double-opt in). Here’s where the passions and super-powers come into play; connecting two lawyers might get you a “meh.” But watch the magic that happens when you connect two sneakerheads, who happen to be lawyers. KABOOM!

These connections can be made digitally or by hosting dinners, starting a book club, or even sweatworking – getting a few people together to go for a pre-work jog.

Share helpful information: The RadReads email newsletter began as a simple exercise in curation that sought to add value to my network. Years before the first issue, I relied on this tagging system to share helpful podcasts, articles, research papers, and YouTube videos. If I discovered something of value, I felt a strong sense of duty to share it with the people who would find it helpful. I hope that ethos still shines through in every issue of RadReads.

Entrepreneurial matchmaking: In the early stages of company building, entrepreneurs are always looking to recruit, fundraise, identify experts, and immerse themselves into new ecosystems. This becomes a handy framework to support these entrepreneurs, with the side benefit of seeing deal flow and getting a front-row seat to the folks building the future.

An important caveat

This framework is meant to be a tool, not your master. And when it comes to genuine relationships, inauthenticity can be sniffed out from a mile away. A database is not a substitute for curiosity and being invested in others. But it is a wonderful tool to enhance our social connections and to be a part of the magic that ensues.

I work with rad executives and founders to overhaul and customize their workflows using individualized sprints. If you think we should be chatting, hit me at khe [at] radreads [dot] co.

Support our community, buy a book ❤️

  • Give and Take, Adam Grant - The foundational text on generosity-centric networking.
  • The Startup of you, Reid Hoffman - The grand-daddy of networking on what it takes to build a network in a digital age.

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Khe Hy
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Khe Hy is the creator of RadReads.