I’ve been thinking about networking lately. Last week, I had a great meeting with a young lady I met maybe 5 years ago, when I revived a volunteer relationship with her organization. I found the volunteer activity personally rewarding and I took it seriously. I sharpened a seldom-used skill that I find highly desirable and I saw to it that my work met or exceeded expectations. Scheduling prevented me from donating services for a couple of years, but I always responded to her outreach. When she asked to pick my brain about a program-related matter, which turned into a request for a face-to-face, I was happy to say yes.
Little did I know that the volunteer service, that is pro bono consulting work, will now pay a stipend. There is also an effort to grow the program. The organization has had trouble selling to the new target market and I was happy to suggest some talking points that should produce results. She took lots of notes. Sometime over the next few months, I expect that I will be invited to provide more pro bono work, this time with a very helpful stipend and a chance to gain access to individuals that I would like to add to my client list.
What’s the moral of this networking story? One, strategic volunteering can pay dividends. Two, selectively network at both ends the organization chart. Don’t assume that lower ranking people are never in a position to help you. This young lady was the program coordinator, not a decision-maker and she’s half my age. Nevertheless, I treated her with respect and always enjoyed working with her. When asked, I offered to give her some much-needed insights, without knowing that she is now in a position to help me make money.
Of course, we all dream of meeting a powerful person who will miraculously agree to become our sponsor and shepherd us into a fabulous career. That happens for some people, but it has yet to happen to me. For example, for more than a decade I regularly attended Mass and sat at coffee hour with a very wealthy and well-connected lady who frequently discussed the professional success she had had before her retirement.
The lady was well aware of my need for clients and yet she never lifted a finger to help. She who had never walked through a door that was not opened for her, deliberately withheld from me. Yet, she never failed to enlist my help with her Sunday amusement—the New York Times crossword puzzle. It is interesting, because she sought me out for conversation and volunteered information about her career and connections. I should have been golden. Oh, well.
But how does one network successfully at the top of the organizational chart? As detailed above, interacting with someone who is inclined to respect you is rule #1. Remaining aware of the difference in power and status is rule #2. Understanding how you can be a valuable asset to an individual who has many resources and most likely doesn’t need anything from you is rule #3 and effectively communicating to Mr. or Ms. High-and-Mighty whatever value proposition that you think might be appreciated is rule #4.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for networking up the food chain, but despite my fruitless experience, which I will say is unusual, networking with the higher-ups is best done at volunteer board meetings, houses of worship, at the fitness center, or in other non-work related venues. There are many people tugging at the sleeves of the well-connected. It’s probably best to get to know them in a social situation that facilitates participating in a shared experience that can lead to organic relationship-building.
Thanks for reading,