Why should we want to network? — What do you want — a job, a favor, customers, some information, an introduction, … ??? Go to any of the dozens of “networking” meetings held in the Chicago area each day, introduce yourself, and get that for which you’re looking — right? WRONG !!! Nothing hard is ever easy. Building the relationships we need, to get what we want, takes much more time and effort.
By the way, what is a network, and how does one work? It’s knowing people who know other people and who will share their contacts. Larry Maier, President of American Business Interlink (a networking business), says, “Most of us are only six contacts from reaching everyone in the world.” He has told me several times what the contact chain (through him) would be for me to reach Nelson Mandella or Henry Kissinger. I now know more than 1000 people who, I think, would readily return my phone calls. If we assume that an average person knows only 100 others, theoretically with only three contacts (a friend of a friend of a friend) we could reach any of 1,000,000 different people. But, you say, lots of people know the same people. OK, I expect that those duplicates would be offset by some of our contacts who know many more than 100 others. How effective might your network be? It depends on who those people are. Can you list your 500 closest friends? (If you can, use a computer to keep track of them.)
No matter where we are or what we are doing, we should realize that we are always networking. We are either building one or tearing it apart. Consider just our vocabulary in conversation. The words we use mean things. For positive networking we want to develop feelings of belonging, alliance, and unity of purpose. Third person plural pronouns (them, they, their) sound unfriendly and impersonal. “Us vs. them” is a classic reference to an adversarial situation. “They” are usually the enemy. When it’s “their” problem, we need not get involved. The second person pronoun (you) sounds bossy or aloof. Advice is often given beginning with “you should …” The giver seems to be “above it all” or otherwise not a participant in the process. First person plural pronouns (we, our, us) are usually understood to be inclusive and often stimulate “warm, fuzzy” feelings. “We” can reach our individual goals more easily when “we” work together as a team. “Our” leaders’ duties are to help “us” help each other. Using the telephone more can help “us” to stay in touch when meeting face-to-face is inconvenient.
Let’s consider how we really feel about each other? Are we colleagues or competitors, or more bluntly — friends or foes? Friends do things together. Friends share things. Friends confide in each other. Friends help each other. Friends count on each other. Friends trust each other. Foes are suspicious of each other. Foes avoid contact. Foes may fight when contact is made. Foes only trust the other to try to do harm at any opportunity. Considering the high probability for changing circumstances in the work place we who may think of each other as foes “today” may need to be friends “tomorrow.” Some of us now work in situations where we may compete for the same job, customer or client. Maybe we can’t be friends with everybody at the same time. To be friends with whom we can takes work. Personal contact is necessary. It is disappointing to observe that many civic and social organizations, which used to provide those opportunities, are fighting to maintain traditional levels of participation. My informal surveys indicate that many of them are competing with “nothing,” and losing. Our attendance at meetings once a year, or worse yet just when we want something, is hardly enough to build useful relationships. Friend or foe, (???); heck, most of us are just strangers.
How can we build a network? Work at it deliberately. Be aware that many of us have been taught, beginning in childhood, to be suspicious of strangers. Newcomers, like “party crashers,” are usually not readily welcomed. Coming with a sponsor, though, tends to de-fuse the conditioning that a stranger is a threat. Find some activities to which you are willing to make a long-term (years, not weeks) commitment. Just paying dues money does not make you a “member” of a group if you never appear. Volunteer — we have to give to get. Be a team player — help others. Keep your promises. Be consistent. Ace Fair, who hosts “Ace’s Business Network A’Fair,” says that for a network to work “we must know, like, and trust each other.” That takes time. Caution — being well known may not be enough to have a useful network. An advertising agency executive and friend told me many years ago, “The best way to kill a bad product is with good publicity.” What do you think your “friends” would say about you when they think you are not listening?
What influenced me? Being a CPA, I have simply skills and integrity to sell. A business competitor told me, about 25 years ago, “Accountants are the world’s worst sales people.” I have gathered little evidence since then to change his opinion. We seem to attract people to this profession who are analytical and introverted rather than caring and social. Too often it seems, we live down to our stereotype. Some of us are different, though.
Almost 10 years ago I was a member of a task force at the Illinois CPA Society to start Industry/Business Forum Groups. Some of us thought that it would be a good idea for more CPA’s to know each other better. The formally created member services of our professional society are very valuable, but sometimes we need more, a “friend” with contacts. A CPA working as a corporate employee may be professionally isolated. Attending the required 40 hours of CPE (continuing professional education) classes each year, though important, did not seem to offer enough opportunity for interaction. While discussing the needs to be served by these groups, it became even more obvious (to me, at least) that if we want a network when we’re 40, we have to start when we are 25.
How did I do it? I have lived in the Beverly Hills neighborhood of Chicago for 25 years. I got acquainted initially by going to a local church. With an introduction from work I volunteered to help with Beverly Improvement Association. As my children grew, I volunteered to help with school groups, athletic programs and Boy Scouts in which they participated. After about 10 years I knew enough people to open doors by myself or find someone to introduce me. After my children graduated from high school, I became more active in Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA), Illinois CPA Society, and Beverly Ridge Lions Club. I still regularly attend the same local church. I was a director of Beverly Improvement Association for 17 years. I have been a member of Boy Scout Troop 608 Committee for 20 years. I was a member of the BAPA Council of Delegates for 5 years. I have been an active committee member or Chapter officer for the Illinois CPA Society for 18 years. I have been an active member of Beverly Ridge Lions Club for 8 years and served a term as Club President. There have been other activities of shorter duration, but I hope you get the picture. I believe that it’s important to be involved with my community, but doing volunteer work just for promoting one’s business would be a bad reason. My activities, frankly, have cost me a lot of time and money, and they haven’t been a good source of business either. They have been (and still are) fun, though, and I hope that those with whom I have served would agree that I have been helpful.
My “real jobs” have put me in contact with people from about 200 different companies around the country and about the same number in the Chicago area alone. Belonging to networking groups like American Business Interlink and Ace’s Business Network A’Fair keeps adding to the diversity of the people I know (and who know me). If you want to “check me out,” there are lots of sources. Whatever they say about me, I hope I can live down. Ha!
If my only reason for “networking” were to get paying work (quickly), I should really wonder about its efficiency. I think that the “old boy network” legend is history, if it ever were true. (Maybe that’s one of the reasons for why so many organizations seem to be losing their support.) Some of my network contacts have become references when potential clients respond to my more direct sales techniques. Occasionally I do get a referral to produce a client. Much more often my contacts are sources of “free” information and other favors. (We do need to remember, though, that help may be worth what we pay for it, if we’re lucky.) I know that am more able to help my paying clients because of whom I know. It sometimes feels as if I give more than I get (I’m a great source for “free” advice and referrals), but a pendulum swings both ways.
I believe that “networking” is an investment. We shouldn’t give up, even if short-term returns are discouraging. We can’t have too many friends!