“Networking”, as the OED may tell us, is “a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest:”
Simple enough, right? Except… what kind of system? Who are the individuals and groups? And most importantly… how do I get in there?
I can’t answer all those questions and I’m not even going to try. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject – “how to…” “tips for…” “best practices…” Trying to compete with that body of literature would be insanity. So, why write on the subject? Because my own experiences (evolving as they are) tend to suggest most of that received wisdom doesn’t quite hold up once you have to get out into the real world.
So, this may not be telling you much if you’re someone who’s innately wired to understand these things, but if (speaking for myself) the art of networking is something you’re having to learn, then hopefully it’s of some value. In a sense, then, consider today's offering as 'networking for newbies'. Without further ado, here are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way:
1 – Be real. Always be real. Authenticity is the best form of currency there is right now. Besides, the smartest people (you know, the people you want to connect with) can smell a fake from 10 feet away. And, really, most of us want to deal with people we trust. Now, to what degree you ‘trust’ someone is another issue, as is how transparent and upfront you are is another question, but real and authentic works every time. One of the best pieces of advice, in terms of keeping it real, that I’ve ever learned is to remember names and faces. I’ll admit: this is the hardest thing for me – it’s my personal mental block. But it really is essential.
Another critical piece of advice: don’t worry about when or how your networking will lead to a ‘sale’. The ‘ABC’ metaphor should never mean Always Be Closing but Always Be Connecting. Anytime you can connect others, even though you have no direct benefit, it can’t do anything but strengthen your rep. For example, an engineer we work with asked us to help another architectural firm, who was shortlisted for a very large, complex project in town, to better understand how the interview process would go, who the personalities were, what their quirks, interests, etc. would be (our firm had presented to this group numerous times over the past couple of years, with better than average results). Even though we didn’t make the shortlist ourselves, I agreed, knowing that, if we helped the engineer get on the winning team, it would be a huge victory for him personally as well as for his firm (their team did win, by the way) Even if our discussions with their group ultimately didn’t make a direct difference, the perception of its worth will be remembered and carried forward.
Finally, the core essence of ‘realness’ is this: what’s your value? Not your net worth, but the quality of what you bring to a situation. It’s a fluid thing – what my value was at 24 is vastly different than at 42. Hopefully that flux is trending on an upward curve.
2 – It’s never about the amount of people but the quality of the connections. Seems self evident, right? Five can be better than 5,000 (or vice versa – we’re all different). But what’s taken forever for me is determining the different strata of connections and the kinds of benefit’s they actually possess. Frankly, for that matter, it’s taken a long time for me to really articulate my own value (out of fear of sounding too pompous). But, I’ve found you have to be able to do that, subtly, and just as importantly, you have to get that information out of others. Because, in the end, the quality of your connections is invariably linked to this question: how are you helping someone else solve their need? (If it’s always about “you” – your just wanting or needing something – forget it. You’re not going to be taken very seriously).
For example, one of the better connections I’ve made over the past year is with a contractor, whom we’ve interviewed a couple of times but never quite gotten the chance to work with. He sends out, to many architects I’m sure, a list of public jobs that he scouts on various news wires and lead generator sites. At first, he’d send me all sorts of stuff – projects we’d have no chance to truly compete on. Finally, after a few months of being barraged, he followed up with a call and I had to work up enough nerve to be blunt enough that, really, there were about 3 core areas where we’d be able to compete in on bids like this. And he disclosed the same (for the kinds of construction projects his company specializes in). What we found out was that, actually, our companies don’t overlap very much, in terms of the kinds of projects we specialize in. So, our chances to work together may be very slim.
But, what we’ve both evolved is a way to look out for those projects –ones we wouldn’t normally give a second thought to but which the other specializes in- and send them to each other when we come across them. It’s led to us both sharing much higher quality leads and we both know exactly what the other is looking for. That’s quality in my book. Finally, don’t be afraid to include people in your network who may seem (and be) competitors in certain arenas. Not every person in your network has to be your friend. You may not work together, but may need each other in counterintuitive ways.
3 - Go where your clients are. Again, it seems so self evident, but gets practiced by so few people, I’m tempted not to remind anyone of this little gem. There were at least 3 conferences our office attended this year, which were run by associations of the groups we like working with, in which we were, literally, the only architects in the room. Imagine - a room full of potential clients and we're the only architects there. But, even then, we try to go further: volunteer for their committees; sit on award juries, etc. We invest in understanding their world. In the end, we’re helping them invent it. Finally, do your best to personalize your client interactions but without being too personal. Keeping an arm’s length with anyone you do business with may not be the worst thing ever, especially with clients. My goal is to make my client’s ambitions “my own” in the context of helping lead them from point A to point N.
So, without the pretense of having compiled an exhaustive survey, I hope these few tips help out in the new year. If there's any interest, I'll try to tackle the more difficult question of 'how to I get to the inside of the best networks'. Or answer any specific scenarios you have, like 'how do I get to the principal of a firm I'm interested in' or some such thing. Oh, and one last nugget: Karma rocks. Keep giving even when it doesn’t seem like you’re getting back nearly as much. It’ll come around, I promise…
Central to the blog is a long running interest in how we construct practices that enable and promote the kind of work we are all most interested in. From how firms are run, structured, and constructed, the main focus will be on exploring, expanding and demystifying how firms operate. I’ll be interviewing different practices – from startups to nationally recognized firms, bringing to print at least one a month. Our focus will be connecting Archinect readers with the business of practice.