Tips for growing your professional network

Issue May 2013 By Susan Letterman White

"Networking" is a word we use to describe a process for meeting people, who might become our next best client, referral source, connection to a job opportunity, business partner, sponsor, or friend. There is a science and art to this process, which is an integral part of a disciplined marketing strategy. On April 4, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of successful networkers: Cynthia MacCausland, Donald Lassman and Daniel Dain. The program, sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association Law Practice Management Section and accessible online via MBA My Bar Access, is titled "Growing and Mining a Professional Network." This article highlights the top 10 tips from this esteemed panel.

Show up. Nothing happens if you stay on the sidelines. Participation is necessary for success.

Have a marketing strategy of which one element is networking and be disciplined in executing your strategy.

Identify your target market. What characteristics define the group? What events do they attend? What publications do they read? What associations do they join? What solutions do they need? Once you have collected sufficient data to answer these questions, plan the when and where of attending events to meet the right people, letting them know what you can do for them, and developing your network.

Join organization committees and volunteer.

Everyone needs help and it's a great way to build relationships. It's also easier, especially for introverts, to build relationships through membership in organizations that matter to them and by working on causes that align with their values and passion. Further, you will work in smaller groups with people who learn about your ability and learn to trust you because you participate and follow through on your promises. If they need a speaker, volunteer to speak. If you don't want to speak, volunteer to help with the planning or logistics of an event. If they need an article, volunteer to write it. You'll build your reputation as your name becomes visible across the community.

Don't ignore or forget about your contacts.

Target clients and referral sources must: (1) know who you are; (2) know what you do; and (3) think of you when a need for what you can provide arises with them or their contacts. If you don't maintain a connection with your contacts, they will forget about you. Even the best clients need to be reminded that you want and are grateful for the business they send your way. Have a process for tracking your contacts. Are they clients, target clients, or referral sources? When did you last connect with a person and how? When will you connect next and how? Other than knowing what you do and what you want, how can you help them?

Do what you love.

It's easier to network if you enjoy networking. If you don't, it's easier to talk about what you love, which should relate to your professional work. The importance of knowing yourself is at the foundation of a successful career and marketing strategy. Who are you? What do you do? What are your values and passions? How are you different from everyone else in your industry? How do you connect with your target market? When you are able to answer these questions with ease, it becomes easier to talk to target clients and referral sources about yourself. If you don't enjoy talking about yourself, that's okay. It's better networking if you spend more time listening and asking questions than talking about yourself.

If you don't love networking, build relationships with sponsors and mentors. Sponsors are people who advocate for you when you aren't in the room. They are referral sources and indirect influencers of the decision-makers, who control delegation of work or job assignments. Mentors, are more experienced lawyers with an established reputation. They will be delighted to review an article for you if you add their name to it and adding their name boosts your reputation by association.

Be specific about your goals.

Know what you want and the appropriate set of action steps to move closer to attaining what you want, beginning with how to ask for what you want in an effective way.

Check your return on investment.

Marketing costs money. Networking involves time and money. As with any strategy, don't neglect to collect and analyz the data on the effectiveness of your networking. How much time and money are you spending? What outcomes on these investments are you measuring to determine the value of your ROI? If your ROI is too low for a particular networking effort, try something else. If your goal is to meet your target market or referral sources and your target market is lawyers in the role of general counsel, bar associations may put you in contact with more competitors than target clients or referral sources.

It takes years to develop clients.

The number of relationships compared to the number of clients will be very high. Keep your thinking aligned with that reality and avoid unwarranted frustration if it seems to take longer than expected to build a significant book of business. It takes years for most of us to develop a substantial book of business.

Use your strengths and manage your weaknesses.

If talking to strangers isn't your strength, plan a strategy that will manage your anxiety. If being in large crowds is stressful and exhausting, plan for a break from everyone with a trip outside for five to 10 minutes in the middle of an event. Know how you will enter into conversations, what you will say, and how you will disengage from conversations. Plan for one-to-one conversations in-person or by telephone to follow up and deepen relationships. Build a reputation through publishing articles in trade journals that your target clients will read. Use social media to connect virtually.

Develop and practice your communication skills.

Networking might feel overwhelming even if you enjoy large parties if your communication skills are underdeveloped. Like any skill, communication and networking require you to know what to do, know how to do it, and then practice a lot. Go to events until you become desensitized to attending these events and talking to strangers. Be your best friend instead of your worst critic and evaluate your performance kindly. Attend marketing message development workshops, work on your marketing messages with a coach or peer, practice basic conversational skills, look for and seize opportunities for public speaking.

Successful rainmakers think differently, act differently, and have different networks. Indeed, the differences in their thinking about what to do and how to network is where success begins. Start by showing up, next be willing to practice and be patient, and finally a stream of business will begin to flow.

Susan Letterman White, a former law firm managing partner, is the founder of Lawyers, Leaders & Teams, a training company devoted to training and coaching lawyers in marketing and leadership.