When I think of networking, I wonder if most people really embrace or understand the true spirit of which it is meant. For me it is about meeting interesting people, making great new connections, and yes, helping people and companies grow. I pride myself on being sincere and ready to lend a hand. I truly love meeting smart, fun people, eating hors d'oeuvres, and sipping wine and champagne. I also understand that when people attend a business networking event that the agenda also includes growing our collective businesses. So I'm not surprised when I receive calls and/or emails (I recommend both) from people that I've met. However, just like online dating, you don't have to go out with everyone you chat with nor do you have to do business with all the people you meet.
I don't know about you, but I get a bit anxious before I attend networking events. Don't get me wrong, I love networking and believe that you should network everywhere: elevators (I met a really good friend in an elevator), restaurants, in line at Whole Foods, and the list goes on. Networking isn't limited to just business events.
I met Mike at a concert about 10 years ago. We email each other a couple of times a year and go out for an occasional lunch. I've never done business with him, although over the years he's introduced me to many of his colleagues and business partners. Of course, that was never my intention when we struck up a conversation at the Allman Brothers' concert. The point is, when I'm sitting at a concert and I talk with the person next to me, I simply don't have an agenda. We are both enjoying the same concert, and we probably have similar music tastes.
My friend Susan was at the hairdresser one day, and she mentioned to her stylist that she was looking for a job. The woman sitting next to her overheard the conversation and said, "My son is in the same business, could I have your card?" Long story short, the woman's son hired Susan. So the moral of the story is you never know who you'll meet, where, and who's listening.
I met Jimmy at Rocko Minerals in Margaretville, New York. He was pushing a baby stroller and had his 7-year-old daughter in tow. I struck up a conversation with him because my country home was just down the block from the store, and I had a little girl too. Wouldn't you know it, I invited Jimmy and his kids for pancakes, and they still come to this day for barbeques and family gatherings. Guess what? Recently Jimmy referred me a client. I'm grateful.
The best advice I've received regarding networking is don't expect anything. When I meet people in stores, at concerts, and yes, I really did meet my good friend in an elevator, I never expect anything. The fact that I reached out and made contact with someone whom I met at an event doesn't put him or her in my debt. No one is required to "pay me back." Instead of approaching networking with the goal of gaining business, I try reaching out and letting them know that I've enjoyed their company. When people respond, I like to learn about them and follow up accordingly, but I don't expect anything in return.
When I attend a networking event, which is a couple of times a month, I like to engage people and get to know them before I ask them for their cards and give them mine. The reality is we are all at a networking event to make connections, so you shouldn't be embarrassed to ask for a card. I don't pass out my business cards like a politician getting votes. I tend to talk to people that are interesting and have energy. I'm interested in establishing trusting relationships that endure over time. It's not about spreading the word about my company. To me, it's important to understand people, where they are coming from, and what's important to them. I might never do business with them, but the people in my network know they can reach out to me at any time, and it's very much a two-way street.
Networking is an active business decision that is not left to chance. I actively select organizations that I want to be affiliated with and attend their events. I become part of their community, giving back to members, whether it's a speaking engagement, an educational seminar on best hiring practices, or mentoring members on finding a great opportunity. When networking in an organization that is relevant and that I care about, it never feels pushy or insincere. I take the time to define what I'm looking for in an organization and its events. Most people don't meet by chance, but if you belong to organizations and regularly attend their events, you're going to see a pattern develop. You're going to recognize faces and remember names. You'll have a vested interest in the other members' business and personal lives.
When I follow up after a trade show or networking event, my first follow-up email is asking them how they found the event. I remember bits of information about our conversation, and I always personalize my notes and voicemail messages. I keep my follow-up messages friendly and to the point. If they don't respond, I'll follow up with another short email. If they don't call me back, it's because they got distracted (happens to me on a daily basis). I don't want to annoy anyone, so I give them a few weeks to return my calls. I also view persistence as a virtue, as long as I'm respectful. To keep top-of-mind within my network, I write articles, tweet, and engage people on LinkedIn and Facebook, sharing information that's helpful and relevant.
Most people think of networking as reaching out to new people, but I love reaching out to my existing network. I want to know how they are growing their business, career, and personal life. I would like to see the baby pictures and graduation pictures. My best networking energies are the people already in my network. Since I'm in the business of connecting people, many times I'll connect my clients to one another. I love utilizing my network to help other people.
The best skills I bring to an event are listening, asking questions, and eye contact. I used to go to events and look around to see who I was not meeting. I was incredibly rude to the person with whom I was talking and have learned over the years that I too don't like being passed over. I'm happy to say that today, I'm a good listener and stay engaged in the conversation. When I do move on to another person, I do it with grace, and people feel that they have received my undivided attention, because they have.
"Side view mid section of two executives exchanging business card" image via Shutterstock.