Consulting is a relationship business…..and with the pandemic the landscape of traditional networking has been demolished or at least temporarily disrupted. There are no in person professional events. Meet and greet events are cancelled. Even if our local coffee shops are open, we most likely choose to defer those frequent coffee cup conversations.
Which raises the question:
If forging and solidifying relationships are key to a successful consulting practice, what’s a person to do in the midst of a global pandemic and local lock downs?
Just because relationship building (and maintaining) is different does not mean it can’t be done! Let me share what’s been working for me – and what I see others doing quite successfully.
There are three primary ways to approach networking in a pandemic:
- Leverage online events others are hosting
- Create your own ways for people to network with you
- Nurture your existing relationships
Let’s look at each of these – and I’ll share some ideas and tips for each!
Leverage Online Events Others are Hosting
There is no lack of places you can get invited to where groups are gathering online. Most professional associations have moved to online meetings, as have civic associations and groups like alumni associations.
I know you may cringe at one more Zoom meeting (I sure do), but this is a way you can expand your network with others taking the heavy lifting of invitations and managing the event.
Begin this strategy by determining what groups are best for you. This is a calculation based on two things:
- Who is likely to attend and are those the folks you would like to build relationships with?
- How adept are they at encouraging networking in an online event?
I did a round of these type of events in December and trust me, some were great places to connect and others were horrible. In one, I stayed an extra 30 minutes for the “networking” portion of the meeting, only to find that the host and the speaker were the only two conversing (by design, I’ll add). I’ve been in others where well-planned breakouts gave you the opportunity to have more meaningful conversations.
As in life, just showing up does not guarantee the results you want. Here are some tips on how to maximize your chances of making a meaningful connection:
- Ensure your name (and perhaps company) are the caption under your photo. It’s easy to edit – and I’ve seen far too many folks show up with someone else’s name (from a shared PC or account) or their phone number.
- Have ready your pithy introduction that shares who you are and what you do in a compelling way. This is one (no more than two sentences) that you can use for intros in breakouts.
- Introduce yourself early in the chat with an interesting comment or a simple statement that you are glad to be here.
- Throughout the meeting, use “chat to all” to engage in the conversation with meaningful content, thoughtful questions, and ideas. Don’t hog the conversation, but don’t be a wallflower either.
- Find those that you want to get to know better and reach out to them with an individual chat – and invite them to a follow up meeting – that meeting can be as short as 15 minutes. I’ve had a some really interesting conversations with some amazing people in the last few months by doing this.
Create Your Own Ways for People to Network With You
You can be even more proactive (and highlight your skills and abilities) by creating something of value that you invite others to. The venue you create and what is offered is shaped by your skills, your interests, your comfort with technology and your network. These can be informal or formal, short or long, scripted or spontaneous.
Some examples from my work this year, where I’ve hosted:
- A series of three one-hour webinars on Leading in Turbulent Times
- Four thirty-minute interactive gatherings called Mindful Mondays
- A month of 15 minute “coffee breaks” on the topic of working virtually
This strategy takes more work but can enable you to invite others to connect with you in meaningful ways. The tools are available (Zoom, email, social media to promote) and take a bit of set up and follow up. If you’ve never done this before, this article has some great tips.
Another way to do this is to identify someone you’d like to add to your network and find common connections on LinkedIn. Ask your existing connection to introduce you to that new person. Be prepared to have a good reason that relates to the other person. For example:
- I’ve always admired your work.
- I am wanting to <fill in the blank> and I would like to learn from you.
Once you’ve been connected, make it easy for them to schedule time with you – and have a bank of good questions or conversation starters for your meeting.
Nurture Your Existing Relationships
This is perhaps the most important AND most neglected AND most rewarding approach to networking in a pandemic. I’ve also found this one to be the most fun!
The key here is to be intentional and then to follow through. It starts with creating a list of those in your network you’d like to deepen or strengthen relationships with. I’d suggest your list should be larger than 10 and smaller than 50, as this approach is more personal and having too many people on your list can be overwhelming.
Once you have a list, find a way to reach out to them. Ways to do this are only limited by your creativity, but seek to find a way that you are able to create space for an individual, person to person conversation. This is NOT another email or sending someone a link to schedule time on your calendar.
I’ve been the recipient (and been delighted to be) of these two approaches:
- Set a goal to personally call a certain number of people on your list. Then really call them (like dial and be available on the other end of the phone). You may get a VM – and then just leave a nice message. You may catch them at an inopportune time – and then just find a better time. Even better, you might have set up an impromptu conversation that will go where it may Remember that you are not calling with an agenda – you are calling to check in and invest in the relationship. Then let things go where they will.
- Convene a small group that share common interests to meet on a regular basis. I’m part of a group that meets every month or so. There is a regular format and the goal is sharing and connection. No matter how busy, I find that I guard those times.
- Send an old-fashioned pen/paper/stamp note. This is a great way to stand out and to delight someone on the receiving end with a surprise in their mailbox.
- Block a few hours and blitz call. I did this just before the holidays. There was no hidden agenda for my call – only to wish them a wonderful holiday. In two hours I connected with about 20 people and left nice VM with another 10. It was fun and I realized how seldom I interact with those I work with on things other than the task at hand.
A Final Note
Whether virtual or in-person, these networking best practices will serve you well:
Be prepared, especially in those one-to-one meetings. Do your homework. This is NOT the time to ask what they do or start with a generic question like “Tell be about yourself.” Learn about them in advance and craft a few questions that show you are interested in THEM and that you’ve taken the time to prepare for your meeting.
Ask what you can do for them. This is a consistent habit that the most successful people I know do without fail. Also be prepared for when they ask you what they might do for you.
Follow Up. Connect with them on LinkedIn. Send a thank you note. Send them a resource or link that deepens a part of the conversation you’ve had.
One lesson that stands out for me during this pandemic is how valuable our relationships are. So don’t let the pandemic be an excuse – there is no better time to invest in growing and nurturing your relationships.