“Can we have lunch, just to get to know each other better?”
Most networkers have little idea how much busy entrepreneurs (or CEOs, community leaders or any successful person) hate to hear these words. Despite knowing the meeting almost certainly will be a waste of time, common courtesy gives the entrepreneur little choice but to squeeze something else into an 80-hour work week, meaning other work, family or charitable opportunities must suffer.
The Opportunity Cost of Networking
Basically, an entrepreneur with a family and obligations already has all their time allocated. There’s an opportunity cost for every new task accepted. If you waste an entrepreneur’s time because you haven’t thought about your own goals or put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it tells him or her that, at best, you are naïve and, at worst, self-absorbed. Not exactly the best first impression.
It is a waste of time to use personal interviews to learn about an industry or decide what you should do with your life. A stranger or casual acquaintance doesn’t know you well enough to give personal career advice and general career advice isn’t very valuable.
If you want to learn more about an industry, it’s more efficient and effective to read about the industry first and then interview frontline workers – not bother a CEO with general questions.
Save interviews and interactions with busy entrepreneurs until you know exactly what you need. Someone who can help you naturally becomes your mentor, so make it as easy as possible for them to help by having a specific request.
It’s Not About You
The first rule of networking is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Why would they want to meet you? How can they help with the least possible expenditure of time or effort? How can you make such an encounter enjoyable for the other person?
Everyone benefits if you recast your idea of networking from “here’s what I need” to “I’ve got something to give the world and, with a little help from you, I can make my dream a reality.”
Twelve Practical Suggestions
- Do your personal soul-searching and industry homework first. Take a personal inventory.
- Be specific about what you need. Make sure the other person understands how a little effort on his or her part can make a big difference in your life. Be clear about what you want so they can help with a minimum of time and effort.
- Always consider the interaction from the other person’s perspective. Why would they want to talk with you? How can you make it easy on them? How can you demonstrate that talking with you would be entertaining or educational?
- Make it easy. Never ask for a lunch if a short meeting will do. Never ask for a meeting if a phone call will suffice. Never ask for a phone call if an e-mail will get the job done.
- Don’t pester. If the other person isn’t interested, back off. Ask if there’s someone else you could talk to and something they suggest you read. Perseverance is a great character trait if you are pursuing a worthy goal, but an empty meeting is not a worthy goal.
- Start at the bottom. Once you have narrowed the list of industries, make your first contacts with people who are helping serve real customers.
- Show up prepared. If you do need a phone call or meeting, be prepared. Make sure you have read all the important books about the industry and the biographies about its pioneers in advance. Thoroughly research the company and the individual with whom you are meeting.
- Send a list of questions in advance. A short list helps set the agenda and shows that you’ve done your homework.
- Ask questions. Your goal in a face-to-face meeting is to establish a relationship. Use your time in a personal interview to learn about the other person.
- Give something unexpected in return. Does the entrepreneur have a favorite charity where you can volunteer? Is there some other way you can give them an unexpected gift? Will you at least pledge to help someone like yourself in the future?
- Be nice to the gatekeepers too. Remember, executive assistants run most companies. They can be your most valuable source of information about a company or an entrepreneur. See them as a resource, not a barrier.
- Follow up. Always, always, always write a handwritten thank you note. Show them your gratitude by offering something unexpected.
Entrepreneurs are busy. Every moment of their time already is committed. People who use social relationships to gain access for meaningless meetings take time away from more important tasks.
Save face-to-face meetings with entrepreneurs for that rare moment when there is something specific they can do, at a very low cost in time and effort, that will make a big difference to your life.
Above all, remember that it’s not about you. People will help you if they sense that you are on an important mission to help others and have the character and drive to make a difference. You can demonstrate this by doing your homework up front, and always putting yourself in the shoes of the other person.