Never have I seen such abject horror, palpable fear, and ashen complexions on the faces of some attorneys as I do when networking comes up.
I still remember, at my very first law firm, when the managing partner – the pure definition of a rainmaker if there ever was one – stood before the firm and roared out the secrets of successful marketing.
“Just get out there. Network!”
Knuckles were white. People were fleeing in droves, on their way to “a sudden client emergency.” They were petrified. Weren’t we taught to never talk to strangers, after all?
And hey, who could blame them? What does “just get out there” even mean? Where’s there? How there? Like rooms full of 500 strangers there? Why me there?
Well, I’m here to let you in on the real secrets of successful networking. It isn’t anything many of us think it is. And I’ll confess that as a neophyte networker back then, I was one of the most terrified to “just get out there.”
What Networking Isn’t
- It’s not walking into a room of strangers and looking for a needle-in-a-haystack prospect or the firm’s next big client. And expecting to find it.
- It is not shoving a business card in every hand you can find.
- It is not hard pressure selling, closing the deal, or asking for business the first time you meet some unsuspecting target of a sales attack. No one expects you to return from a networking event with a big client. If it happens, great, but it’s unlikely.
- Networking isn’t all me, me, me…doing all the talking to sell yourself to the other person.
- It’s not knowing everyone in the room. Most of us don’t.
- It is not the concept many of us struggle with – that networking is sales, and sales is unseemly, so networking equals sales, and, no, please don’t make me be a used car salesman on a zealous quest to get a prospect “into a legal contract today.” (And frankly, most car salesmen today are consummate professionals, too. It’s time to rid ourselves of the smarmy salesperson image for good!)
- Networking isn’t keeping everyone you meet – regardless of where – on speed dial, follow up lists, and endless games of chase.
What Networking Really Is
Now, here’s the good news. You can shift your thinking once and for all about networking and what it entails. And the better news: networking employs precisely the skills that make for good lawyering.
- Networking is strategic. It is selectively engaging with individual professionals and professional associations that fit your practice, your interests, and your personal life.
- Networking is building sincere relationships with other professionals – some of whom you can help, some of whom will be able to help you, some of whom will become friends.
- Networking is building your well before you’re thirsty, creating connections and relationships with others before you’re desperately hungry for work. Networking while you’re busy is often best!
- Networking is taking an authentic interest in the people you meet, asking thoughtful questions to uncover their interests and issues, finding out if you can be a valuable member of each other’s circle of influence, be it a referral partner, prospect, champion, or peer. While networking shouldn’t feel like a deposition, asking lots of questions, and listening more than talking pays dividends.
- Networking can be at the 1:1 level – reaching out to a former law school classmate or firm colleague, an accountant you’ve worked with in the past, a financial advisor with clients like yours, and others who swim in the complementary or similar pond.
- Networking can happen through a civic or professional association, serving on a board or committee, and creating lasting connections. Networking can be done at a big event you’ve never attended before that attracts people with whom you’d like to work.
In fact, networking can happen anywhere.
What Does a Successful Networking Conversation Look Like?
Being a networking superstar is simple. It starts with dialogue.
A productive networking conversation:
- Generates rapport and affinity.
- Conveys knowledge, expertise, and engagement through questions.
- Uncovers and understands the other person’s needs through thoughtful questions.
- Builds on active listening, hearing what your networking partner is saying rather than planning your response as their lips move.
- Demonstrates what it’s like to work with you – that you’ll be sincere, engaged, interested, and interesting.
- Sets up the next conversation. Be on “high receive” for ways to continue the next stage of the conversation.
Yeah, I know. It sounds a lot like dating. And it is. A great first date uncovers mutual interest. And that leads to the second date.
So, How Do You Do It Well… Really?
Here are a few pro tips that will help ensure networking is a positive and relationship-yielding experience:
- Choose organizations, networking events, and 1:1 networking partners strategically and selectively.
- At a first-time event, ask a member of the board to host you as a newbie. Call the membership director and ask her to show you the ropes. Joining a committee to create a team of friendly faces before you face the annual gala helps, too.
- Prepare: Think of some good questions you can ask that get you out of the land of small talk.
- Recognize that many there are in your shoes, feeling awkward or shy or uncomfortable.
- Exit conversations respectfully if there is no common ground. Don’t get stuck talking to one person all night.
- Tee up the next conversation when mutual interests are unearthed.
Change Your Mind
Face it, lots of us don’t love networking. When you realize what it really is rather than what you thought it was – and that it isn’t about you, you, you, but a shared purpose with no high-pressure pitch — networking becomes a lot more enjoyable. See networking through a new prism. Change the old tape. It might never be your favorite thing, but you’ll hate it a whole lot less.
The Golden Rule
One final, seriously important tip to successful networking: when you meet someone and find a common purpose for a business relationship, look for ways to help him first. Be on the lookout for others you can connect him to, things you can refer, helpful articles that fit his interests, issues, and position.
Give to get.
Those who give first rather than expecting something are often on the receiving end of something far greater.