Inverting views on Networking: How Can You Influence Someone’s Life Today?

Nashville partner Teresa Bult is providing a guest post today.

Lately, I keep reading articles about how horrible the networking process is, especially for introverts and lawyers (oh wait, that may an oxymoron). And I must say, when I first started out networking, I felt exactly the same way. I still tell young associates that networking and marketing can seem like the “fine art of beating your head up against the wall.”

You can spend hours and hours and meeting after meeting and cocktail event after

cocktail event, and never walk away with any business. And the reality is, we Womens Busienss Socialare now in a legal market where young associates are told when they walk in the door of many law firms that they not only need to be good at sitting alone in their office understanding and dissecting the law, but also counterintuitively, out socializing and developing relationships and business. What? What? These two things do not mesh with lawyers’ (or introverts’) personalities, and the dichotomy might just be enough to push some lawyers off the ledge (as if lawyers didn’t have enough pressure to be hanging by a thread, anyway).

Even in-house attorneys have this problem. They need to connect with their business partners and are expected to “network” with other in-house counsel, outside counsel, and those in the C-suite. From what I understand from my peers, it can be a miserable endeavor.

Over the years, however, I have figured out it just isn’t that hard. Indeed, the fact that so many lawyers and other more introverted salespeople THINK networking is so hard is the precise reason it isn’t. It isn’t hard to distinguish yourself in a crowd of people who are clearly networking as they are gritting their teeth.

So what is my “secret,” you ask? No particular secret, really. But what I have learned is to invert my thinking – flip it on its head, if you will. How so? Well, it is no secret that every single person at any particular networking event is there for a reason. The fact that people walk around the room acting like they are just there for the fun, social aspect of the party is kind of the funny part of the whole endeavor. Truthfully, I would venture to say that in my busy world, if an event does not have a dual purpose, that I will ultimately not attend. Bear with me as I sound opportunistic – I think I am only verbalizing what  lot of other people – especially working moms -- are thinking, but I very well may just be a selfish boob at heart (keep reading, because I think I redeem myself). In other words, if I see an opportunity to go to a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminar, I also have to preview the topics or attendees to make sure that it not only Gritting teethgets me CLE credit, but also has the potential for me to meet a potential client or referral source. Same for nonprofit boards. If I agree to be on the school board for my kids’ school or chair of an ABA committee, I have to feel like that I am not only giving back to the school or organization and supporting my children or legal community, but also that there is at least the possibility that someone else on that board or committee will be a potential source for business, or that the position itself will make me sound important enough that others will think I am worth hiring. If the event or role does not provide dual purpose, then I can tell you the entire time I am at that event, I am gritting my teeth as I am wishing I was home at dinner with my children and husband. Or worse yet, I will find an excuse not to go to the event. It is that simple.

I don’t think what I am about to reveal here changes that “dual purpose” theory, but what I have learned when I go into those events is not to look around and think, “who can be my next potential client?”, but instead, say, “how can I influence someone’s life today?” This changes my “purpose” at the meeting. I know this sounds a little cheesy, but I promise you, it works. I can’t take real credit for this idea – I have been reading and listening to an awful lot of Brene Brown these days, and her concept of authenticity, connecting with others, empathy and vulnerability – all leading to a wholehearted person -- seems spot-on to me. But I’ll save my raving about Brene for another day.

At the end of the day, however, this just makes practical sense. Think about it.  If you meet someone at a cocktail party, and you know you are their target audience for a sale, what do you immediately do? Yep. Cringe. And if they say something about their business, the suspicion immediately creeps up your leg up through your neck until all you can think of is how to get away from that person. I have felt it when vendors come up to me, and I have felt in house counsel or HR Executives feel it when I walk up to them at a party.

And when I walk in scouting for that potential sale, I am miserable, too. I talk to the first person, and realize they aren’t my target audience, so my eyes begin darting and I look for a quick exit from that conversation to move on to the next. Or I go to a luncheon and inevitably sit at the table where no one is my target audience, and I sit in silence eating my meal and listening to the speaker, checking the little checkbox in the bubble above my head as a “fail.” Or if I happen to come upon that person who is actually my target audience, I find myself stiff and choking up as I try to remember my perfect elevator speech and how to make sure in my five minutes with them, that I am able to convince them what a wonderful lawyer I am. It is enough to make my stomach hurt just thinking about it.

Instead, if I walk into a meeting with a different purpose of “how can I influence someone’s life today?” I win no matter  what. If I have that mentality, I am really in tune to the person in front of me.  I am building a relationship with that person, and they can (hopefully) tell it. If they happen to be a potential client target, then woo hoo – they will hopefully like me instead of cringing from me, and it might be the start of a Influencebeautiful friendship or even client relationship, and when I email them to see about a follow up coffee or lunch, they’ll actually want to come. At a minimum, they will remember me more (at least in a positive way). If I have that mentality, I will actually be asking them questions that are relevant to THEM, and paying attention to their answers. I am trying to figure out how I can genuinely help them out – not how they can help me out. And I can continue that conversation with them over coffee or lunch (which for me, will still never, ever – and I mean ever -- include an elevator speech or sales pitch). I am trying to invest in those individuals on a different level, which feels real and human.

If for some reason, you end up talking to someone who is not a client target, guess what? You can influence their life, too – by sharing a story of a struggle in your life, or how you balance work and life, or just by listening to their story and relating to what they are going through. Maybe this is a very woman-like thing to say, but I think that is a “win” as well.

Life is too short not to be authentic and engage in other people’s lives. Why not use your networking opportunities as a way to be genuine and influence others around you, instead of just thinking of opportunistic ways to sell or connect or further your career? I promise, even if you don’t end up with that million dollar client or an invitation to the VP’s pool party, you (and they) will be better off for it. How can you influence someone’s life today?

women's business social 2

Image Credits: From flickr, Creative Commons license. Image of Women's Business Social 058 by Jodi Womack; Gritted Teeth by Cerulean5000; Arcofinfluence by Beth Kanter  ; Women's Business Social at The Lavender Inn, Ojai, California May 2012. Photos by Caitlin Jean Photography

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