As a young attorney I realized that if I eventually wanted to be in a partner in a law firm I needed to develop my own clients. Working quietly at my desk was not going to be enough. I needed to get out of my comfort zone and meet businesspeople.
At the time, my boss had made it clear to me that he wasn’t looking to me to bring in any new business. We were plenty busy. Nevertheless, I understood that my long-term success depended on me generating my own business rather than relying on somebody else feeding me forever.
If you don’t have a mentor, find a role model
Nobody really mentored me on networking. But there was a well-known CPA in town that I had met a few times. He was a real “mensch.” He made it his business to know “everybody.” He treated people both high and low with respect and goodwill. I decided that I wanted to follow his example.
Just 15 minutes more
I got started networking by doing the typical thing — I started attending a few networking events. It was a good way to get my feet wet and learn the ropes of professional networking.
It wasn’t a lot of fun at first. Like a lot of young networkers, I was often a wallflower at events. After a while, I realized I needed to break the habit of getting bored and frustrated and leaving shortly after finishing a plate of appetizers.
To break that habit, I would make a deal with myself that I would stick around another 15 to 20 minutes to see if anybody else I knew would show up. Often in the next 15 to 20 minutes I would meet somebody new who would strike up a conversation. Before I knew it, I would have stayed another hour or two – meeting several people in the process. The lesson here is to be patient and persistent with your networking even when you don’t want to.
Don’t fly solo
Before long, I realized that networking alone was never as much fun or as productive as having a “wingman.” I learned to coordinate with friends and see who else was going to the same events as me. At times I was even more intentional and would drag along a friend so that I would not be networking alone.
Getting started, my networking mate and I would walk into a cold room, stand alone, and start talking to each other. Usually, other people would approach us and start a mini group conversation. Unintentionally, we would become the center of attention. This was great, but we learned another trick. Instead of merely holding court with one group of people, one of us would slip away and go talk to other people. As each of us met some interesting person, we would find some reason to make an introduction. We would declare, “you have to come meet my friend Sara. Let me introduce you.”
Let your partner do the talking
One reason to network is to develop business. You want to convince people to like and trust you. They need to believe you are good at what you do. But bragging doesn’t come easy for a lot of us… and may be counterproductive if you want to be likable. Having a networking partner allows each of you to talk-up the other instead of promoting yourself.
Another benefit of having a networking partner (or partners) is shared market intelligence. If you live and work in a big city there’s probably a countless number of events you could attend. Most of those will be public events that are available by subscribing to various organizations newsletters or checking community calendars, like Eventbrite. But often the best invitations are for private, invitation-only events. Knowing somebody who can get you into those events is very valuable.
Be a host
What’s better than getting into a private invitation-only event? Hosting one, of course.
If you are the organizer of an event you have a reason to talk to everyone in the room, and everyone in the room has a reason to talk to you. This is true whether you’re talking about a simple cash-bar meetup happy hour, or a more formal event hosted by a networking organization or nonprofit.
Don’t wait for permission
Ten years ago, I had the idea of a small networking group in Houston, Texas. I shared the idea with some friends. We created a group on LinkedIn and then invited some friends to a meet up at a local wine bar for about a dozen people. We decided to do it again the next month and had 24 people show up. Next time, 90. Out of the blue, a high-end venue asked us to come hold the event at their space. We jumped at the opportunity. We coordinated the event with a law firm, CPA firm, and investment bank, and promoted it a bit more energetically. The very large venue was wall-to-wall with young professionals. We estimate that we had about 250 people show up — just to network!
Over time we ended up running an organization — Texas Young Professionals — with five chapters across the state of Texas. We never asked for permission to set up the organization. We didn’t ask our employers, or any existing organization in town (some of which weren’t happy to see us on their turf). We just did it.
Ten years later the organization has about 72,000 followers on LinkedIn and has had thousands of people attend events in five different chapters. Building on prior roundtable lunch discussions, we recently launched a lunch series called “Thrive.” The lunch series gives young professionals an outlet to discuss big ideas about the future of work, building social capital, and how to prosper financially.
This experience has taught me that when you have a good idea, don’t wait around for permission. Get started — even if you don’t have a fully-developed plan in place. Don’t wait for your boss to give you instructions. Don’t wait to be “discovered” by someone who will mentor you and show you the ropes. Take the initiative and get started.