Have you ever wondered how some people always seem to have the inside track? Or always “know someone” who can give them the inside scoop? Or can always “call a friend” to find out something or ask a favour?
That’s not just family connections or personal charm at work. It’s the power of the network, that invisible web that we all need, whether it’s new parents looking for advice, hand-me-downs and babysitters, or lawyers looking for business. You may feel that you’ve got where you are today by hard work, not by who you know. You may even feel offended at the idea that “It’s not what you know but who you know.” Fact is, it’s both what you know AND who you know.
You never know where you’ll meet your next prospective client. I met my accountant and one of my graphic designers at my son’s karate club. It really doesn’t matter what the activity is, it can generate useful contacts. Bill Gates got his first break when his mother, who was on the board of United Way, told a fellow board member, who just happened to be the CEO of IBM, that he should pay more attention to small, innovative companies. Her subsequent introduction of her boy Billy to John Akers resulted in Microsoft getting IBM as a client for its software.
Building a network of contacts takes time; maintaining it takes even more—and it’s worth every minute. But it’s like a crisis communications plan—you must build it before you need it. A network is a series of connections and we all have them, whether we use them actively or not. Just think for a minute about the communities you’ve been involved in: your family, your law school class, your law firm, your gym or sports club, your condo, your religious community…and so on. All of these communities can generate connections that form your network.
Once you’ve made the connections, you need to take an active part to make your network work for you. We sometimes get involved in things through obligation and end up waiting for the activity to end rather than making best use of it. My best example involves two lawyers whose kids both played soccer for the same team. Lawyer A got his son to soccer practice on time, but spent most of the game making phone calls or dealing with emails on his BlackBerry. He never really knew who else was among the network of parents. Lawyer B, on the other hand, introduced herself to the other parents, asked which positions their sons were playing, and cheered them on as well as her son. When asked to car pool with other parents, she joined in willingly, giving as much as she received. In chatting with another parent, she discovered that the parent was interested in acquiring a business and bingo, she had a new client.
The operative words in that example are “giving as much as she received”. Think first about what you bring to your network, rather than what you want from it. As soon as you become known as someone with valuable information, connections, and knowledge, your reputation is automatically enhanced. If someone in your network asks for something, be prompt in responding, even if it’s only to say, “I don’t have much experience with [whatever], but I know someone who does. I’ll introduce you.”
Don’t mistake visibility for credibility: if everyone knows who you are, but has never seen you follow through on anything, that’s not good. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. “We must get together for lunch”, or “I’ll have to introduce you to my car mechanic/butcher/managing partner” are meaningless without following through.
Similarly, if you use your network only when you want something, that will rapidly become known. We all have that contact who turns up in our voicemail or email inbox only when she’s looking for a new job. We pass on some names, give a reference maybe—and don’t hear from her again until the next time she needs the power of our network. Don’t become known as that person.
Maintaining your network involves doing things to keep the connections alive, especially keeping your contact list up to date. In the early days of people’s careers, they tend to move around relatively frequently. The best way to maintain a network is to use it—and follow up on bounceback emails! If you aim for six touchpoints (more about those in my next column) a year, your contacts will remember you.
You don’t have time for all that? Well, as Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “When you need a friend, it’s too late to make one.”