by Kent Lewis
I’ve been told more than once that I’m a ‘networked’ guy. Although I’ve built my Portland network from scratch over the past 11 years, I don’t consider myself a networker in a traditional sense. To me, a stereotypical networked person wears a suit, shows up at every industry event with a stack of business cards and is constantly doing deals on their cell phone. Not only do I not see myself fitting into that mold, I believe my philosophy on networking is quite different from traditional definitions. Except for the cell phone part.
A Dying Tradition
A crucial component of sales is building and leveraging a personal network. Since my early childhood, I’ve had trouble meeting new people. Likely due to low self-esteem and irregular bathing habits, I’d always had a fear of rejection, so I chose not to engage in conversation with people I didn’t know. It’s a habit I still struggle with today.
Upon graduating from college and entering the business world in a new city, I quickly realized I was at a disadvantage. I knew only one person in Portland, my cousin. Luckily, I landed a job at an agency filled with young people like me with whom I was able to forge strong relationships. As I moved through various jobs, I began to see how networked professionals worked their “magic.”
The sales and business-development contacts I met at various industry events made me shudder with their aggressive conversation style and pushy tactics. At breakfast or luncheon events, there was always at least one person at the table who gregariously introduced themselves to everyone, handed out their cards and talked up themselves or their company. I would sit quietly, noting the reaction of the others at the table.
For the most part, people are pretty flexible when it comes to interacting with shameless or aggressive sales types, but I’ve developed a disdain for their overly extroverted, often completely shallow style. While there will always be some place in the universe for these traditional networkers, I believe there is a much more effective strategy to meeting the right people and doing business together.
With only a handful of professional and personal friends in the Portland area, I had to develop a method for expanding my network and building a meaningful career. Rather than attend all Portland-area industry events to meet as many people as possible, I chose to take a more measured and patient approach.
First of all, I carefully assessed each industry event to determine its educational or networking value for me at that time. Earlier in my career, I was more focused on learning than networking. The bonus to focusing on educational events is that networking is usually a part of the mix.
Prior to each event, I tried to determine if anyone else I knew would be attending. If so, I would coordinate to ensure I connected with that person at the event. If I didn’t know anyone, I would make a point of meeting at least one person I felt I could hang out with during the event. The goal was to have someone to talk to and with whom to share ideas and thoughts about the content, attendees, speakers, etc.
The second reason for concentrating on developing just a few, deeper connections was that it allowed me to build the trust necessary to request introductions to people in their network, as well as build the confidence to meet other strangers at that and future events. When possible, I’ll try to approach two people who appear to have recently met. I’ve always felt that talking to two such is more valuable than talking to someone on their own, much like a married guy has more credibility to most women than a single guy.
While at the event, I’d make a point of not talking up myself or my business. Rather than volunteer information, I tend to respond only when asked, even if I initiated the conversation. This has helped me build trust and credibility with the types of professionals with whom I wanted to align myself. Patience is generally the best strategy, although there are times when proactive engagement is the only way to ensure a connection is made.
Once I make initial contact, I foster a conversation that initially focuses on business, but inevitably transitions to personal interests. I feel that you can’t truly connect with someone in business without knowing something about their personal lives. That little amount of knowledge can go a long way when used properly (e.g., birthdays, personal interests, names of family members).
Fostering a business relationship usually takes months, if not years. My approach has been to provide helpful information or to do a small favor for new connections. Once the trust is built, it elevates the relationship to a new level, allowing for a return favor, like a meeting or an introduction to someone else.
Rather than abuse my network, I choose to build lasting relationships. That way, whenever I need to pull in a favor, I have people to whom I can go for help. The best part of my networking philosophy is that I rarely ask for favors, so my connections continue to send referrals and offer support out of good will.
To initial build my network, I tried to think of creative ways in which to generate opportunities. For example, I created my own Portland-area networking event when I realized I knew many talented professionals that didn’t know each other. Today, pdxMindShare is a weekly email service that includes job openings and event listings. In addition, I’ve built my search engine marketing agency business around the philosophy that we give back more to the local Portland community than we take. In both instances, I’ve helped connect individuals and companies, and created opportunities for Anvil in the process.
Making It Work
Networking is all about karma. The more you put into networking, the more you get out of it. At the same time, keep your expectations conservative to ensure you’re not disappointed with the time commitment. If I were to boil my career networking philosophy down to essential elements, they would include the following:
- Your time is money; use it sparingly.
- Develop relationships with “Connectors” that serve as the foundation of your network.
- Provide value early on in every relationship.
- Consider volunteering for charities and industry organizations.
- Ask for favors from your network judiciously.
- Let your connections build your network for you via referrals.
- Connect your network: create value by introducing key contacts to each other.
- Be patient, a valuable network takes a lifetime to build.
By following the above recommendations, you should be the most networked person in Portland, or Anytown, USA in no time.