Taking the First Step to Enhance Your Professional NetworkPublished: Thomson Reuters – Construction Accounting and Taxation
By: Sharon Berman
Published: Thomson Reuters – Construction Accounting and Taxation
Nearly every successful professional and businessperson has learned how to network. However, networking skills can best be employed when one attends networking events. For many professionals and businesspeople in the real estate and construction “space,” the idea of meeting new people at large industry mixers is daunting. It’s not that these lawyers, CPAs, developers, or other experts are unwilling to expand their professional circles. It’s just that their discomfort becomes a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Because of this challenge, these otherwise driven businesspeople avoid critical social functions that have the potential to expand their business.
There are always the exceptions—those who have no qualms about walking into a room full of people they don’t know, and actually thrill to the potential it holds—but the majority of professionals I encounter share the same discomfort at the thought of walking into a room full of unfamiliar faces. For them, I encourage employing simple yet effective techniques to help them move past their fears so that they can reap the many benefits these meetings afford.
Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you can accomplish. Take stock of your strengths and play to them. For instance, if you are at your peak later in the day, then plan to attend luncheons and evening programs that are packed with potential referral or deal sources. If you’re more of a morning person, then you’d likely be more comfortable going to breakfast meetings or lunches. While it’s important to align with your strengths, you should also prepare to be flexible. If, for instance, you prefer evening meetings but a construction industry group that you’ve been hoping to penetrate has a breakfast conference planned, you should make arrangements to attend. Other obligations, such as family commitments, also play into this self-assessment. You may have children, a spouse, or older parents who need your attention at a particular time of day. If that’s the case, plan your networking opportunities accordingly.
Consider where you live and work as a deciding factor in which networking opportunities are most valuable to you. If you’re already not enthusiastic about connecting with a roomful of strangers, you’ll likely be less so if that meeting also entails a long commute during rush hour. However, just as you should remain open to change in terms of time when a crucial networking opportunity arises, so should you stay open to attending one that may seem geographically undesirable. If the latter turns out to be the case, be sure to allot enough time to account for any commuting issues you may encounter. This will help minimize stress and ensure your attendance.
Consider that you do not need to stay for an entire meeting. Sometimes, it’s easier to get yourself there if you give yourself permission to leave by a certain time. The important thing is to plan to be at the event for the networking phase, which is often before the event starts. If you happen to be making useful contacts and want to stay longer, then you always have that option. However, you’ve already accomplished what you’ve set out to do—you’ve gotten there.
Determine the most discreet way to exit, generally before the meal begins, and take your leave. Some professionals and businesspeople have built entire practices staying at luncheons and breakfasts only for the networking sessions. You can do this, too.
Attend with a buddy. Chances are if you’re uncomfortable walking into a room full of unfamiliar faces but still want to attend an important industry event, you have a colleague, referral source, or client who feels the same way. Therefore, consider pairing up and attending the event together. Extend the invitation, and, whether that individual can attend or not, you’ll earn kudos for reaching out to that person. If another professional does join you for their own networking purposes, agree prior to the meeting that you will sit at different tables and spend your time talking with new people.
Pay your entrance fees in advance. For many people, knowing that money has already been spent is enough incentive for them to attend an event. If you fall into this category, then paying in advance will help increase the odds that you’ll show up.
Ignore negative self-talk. Despite our best tactics, many of us still fall victim to our internal voices that keep us from expanding our networks.
- “I’m too far along in my career to have to keep doing this.” In these challenging times, many experienced real estate and construction professionals and businesspeople find themselves in a place where, for the first time in years, they must network. You may feel this way, too. However, today’s business climate has created an entirely new playing field. While we have enjoyed successful careers, many of us now need to be creative, reinvent ourselves, and stay educated. You’re not alone if you’ve witnessed the evolution—or even disintegration—of your old client base and find yourself having to build a new one.
- “People might believe I’m trying to sell them something.” Trust in your knowledge that you’re not there to do a hard sell. Instead, you’re interested in this organization so that you can talk to people, learn, and start building relationships. The whole point of going to networking events is to identify those it makes sense to build a business relationship with. The networking is a screening process.
- “Another professional has already cornered that organization.” If you’ve wanted to target a specific trade association or industry group, do not let this fact keep you from attending a meeting. It’s true—every industry or trade organization likely has a lawyer, CPA and insurance professional who has been part of the organization for a while and serves in the role you’d like to have. Still, there is a place for you. Different people like different things—other work styles, personalities, and ways of thinking—and some professionals and client-types may prefer someone like you over the person who is already in place. This means that there is usually room for one more if you are willing to invest time and effort in making inroads into the organization that interests you.
Replace your negative internal thinking with something more positive:
- “I want to attend this meeting so that I can learn something new.” When you simply want to gain new knowledge and explore, you can alleviate a lot of stress. Knowing that you’re only there to learn, you can talk to people with that thought in mind and come away with many new ideas that will benefit you. For instance, you may find out about a new innovation or a challenge your peers face. Once you have this fresh information, consider what you can do with it. Perhaps it would make a good post to your blog, an article in a trade publication, or a great topic to discuss with a colleague or referral source. Taking this approach draws people to you. People want to talk to others who are interested in them and what they find exciting. You can quickly build a strong network if you express your genuine curiosity and interest.
- “I will take on the role of host.” If you act as though you are hosting the event, you will likely put others at ease. For example, if it were your event, you would reach out to someone who was alone and looking uncomfortable. In this case, although you’re entering the room for the first time yourself, be the host. Begin a conversation with someone who looks ill at ease. Then, bring others into your circle. Before you know it, the event will feel like your party, and you will be able to enjoy it.
It’s important to know that you will probably feel uncomfortable at an organization’s event until you’ve attended several meetings. Once you get past that hurdle, your initial discomfort will have been worth it. By the third time you attend a meeting, you’ll recognize peers, and they will know you. From that point on, it will be smooth sailing.
Also, be aware that you may have to push yourself past any feelings of uneasiness. Still, once you’ve attended that first event, regardless of its outcome, you’ll feel as though you’ve accomplished something, and you’ll want to do it again.