I’ve always been a networker.
In high school, I was the guy who had a ton of friends, but very few close friends. I also managed an underground student newspaper, so I had to know a ton of students.
In college, I worked for the student newspaper. I worked at a computer lab where I met students. And I was involved in the student AdFed chapter, which allowed me to meet all sorts of people inside and outside my college.
As a professional, networking has been an absolute key to my success for 25+ years. It led directly to numerous jobs earlier in my career. And, over the last 13 years as an independent consultant, it’s been the lifeblood of my business.
In many ways, over the last 13 years, I’ve gotten paid to network.
And over those 13 years, I’ve probably had upwards of 1,300 coffee meet-ups. Here’s my math. 1,300 meet-ups over 13 years = 100 per year. 100/52 weeks in a year = 2 meet-ups per week. That sounds about right.
If each coffee meet-up represents 2 hours of time (an hour for the meeting and half hour of travel/prep time on the back and front ends) that equals 2,600 hours devoted to networking (minimum) over those 13 years. That’s the equivalent of 108 days or more than 3 months!
Why did I schedule and attend all these meetings? After all, that’s A LOT of time and effort. Two big reasons for me: 1) My business is to know a lot of people. Leads can and do come from anywhere, so the more people I know in our industry, the better. At least that’s the way I see it; and 2) I just enjoy it. I’m not a hugely extroverted person, but I really do like meeting new people and learning more about them. I’m not great in big groups (parties), but I love the one-on-one dynamics. It just feels easier to me–and much more fun.
How did I do all these meetings? In the early days of my business, I would aim for at least 3 meetings a week. At that point, I was trying to talk to as many people as possible, share that I was now a solo consultant and learn more about the challenges and problems facing those tasked with managing social media on behalf of their companies.
Since then, I’ve ratcheted that back to roughly 2 meetings a week these days (and 1 a week during the pando).
However, for me, “coffee meet-ups” translate to much more than just meetings at Starbucks. Over the years, it’s also meant:
- Golfing (most of the people I play golf with are people I also know professionally)
- Skiing (same)
- Porch parties (I’ve invited many business colleagues to our porch over the years–our mastermind group comes to mind)
- Mall walking (or lake walking; this is a recent add thanks to MOA’s Jill Renslow!)
Over the last 13 years, I’ve learned all the usual lessons about networking–how to prepare for a coffee meet-up, what to wear, how to follow-up. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t bother you with those again today.
But, at the same time, I also learned a number of business and comms lessons that have helped me in my day-to-day life as a consultant. And that’s what I want to spend the bulk of the time talking about today. 13 lessons I’ve learned from 1,300 coffee meet-ups over 13 years.
Lesson #1 – Learned to be a better listener, an active listener
The coffee meet-up is all about listening. It’s a little-known secret to networking success. Talk less. Listen way more. The benefits are huge. First, you’ll learn a TON about whoever it is you’re meeting up with. This is invaluable information you will use to get to know them better and deepen the professional relationship. Listening also means the other person is talking more, which means they’re probably pretty happy at the end of the meet-up. After all, who doesn’t like to talk about their life, their career and what makes them happy and interesting?
Lesson #2 – Learned how to build mutually-beneficial relationships
In the business and comms world, this skill is absolutely paramount. Think about your media relations work–isn’t the idea to build a relationship that helps both the journalist AND you/your client? With coffee meet-ups, the coffee was always just step one. From there I kept in touch with the individual and looked for other ways to keep the person in my orbit. Sometimes, this meant inviting them to be a part of the mastermind groups I manage. Other times it meant asking them to be a speaker at my class at the University of St Thomas. Other times, it meant being a guest on my blog or the podcast. Yet other times, it meant inviting them to watch a Wolves game with me. The point: I always looked to advance the relationship in a way that benefitted me AND them.
Lesson #3 – Learned the value of preparation
Over the last 13 years, I can count the number of people who have shown up to a coffee with me with questions and notes on one hand. One of those people was Abby Reimer. What’s more, she actually sent me the questions BEFORE the coffee meet-up. GENIUS! This not only demonstrated how prepared she was for the meet-up, it also offered a framework to keep us on task during our coffee. Point being: Be sure to do your homework before the meeting. You’ll appear prepared (always a good look) and you’ll then have a useful agenda for your meeting.
Lesson #4 – Learned that building trust takes a lot of time and effort
Over 13 years as an independent consultant I’ve learned that people usually won’t refer me after just one meeting. But if I can show value month over month, and get to know the person better, I can build trust. Then that person may hire me or refer me. In some cases, that process takes a few months. In others, it may take years. Such was the case with my friend Branden Happel. I remember trying to get Branden’s attention way back in my PRSA days in the early 2000s. After a number of attempts, it wasn’t until later when I invited him to be a part of my mastermind group that I started to get to know him better. The regular interaction built trust. Then, he hired me. We did a social media training together at Pinehurst–the birthplace of golf in the U.S. We played #2, one of the most famous golf courses in the country. Today, we’re good friends. We go to Wolves games. We play fantasy basketball. We play golf together. But, that was the result of many years of interactions that built trust.
Lesson #5 – Learned that relationships are a mix of digital + in-person
Yes, the coffee meet-up is a great opportunity to get one hour of un-interrupted time with someone. However, it’s just one meeting and we just talked about how it takes months or years to build trust. One way you can do that: via semi-regular digital interactions. Whenever I meet someone for coffee for the first time, I then start to look for them a bit more online. I’ll specifically look for ways to stay in front of them on a regular basis without SEEING them. Commenting on a LinkedIn post. Sending a text to say congrats on the promotion. Liking an Insta post. All those little digital interactions matter. They are, in effect, little “pings” that keep you top of mind with the person you just met.
Lesson #6 – Learned that most people want to know what other people are doing
One of the mastermind groups I run is comprised of senior-level communicators at big companies in Minneapolis/St. Paul. These are accomplished people. Successful people. But, they’re almost always interested in what their colleagues are doing in the comms space. That was never more evident than during the pandemic when we were comparing notes about how companies were handling everything from back-to-work comms to COVID comms. Sometimes those people learned something from that sharing–something they might then put in place at their workplace. Other times, it was merely validation that they were on the right path. Point being: Because so many of us have few people to talk to about our day jobs, we’re always wanting to know what others like us are doing.
Lesson #7 – Learned that executives and senior leaders are easier to talk to than you might think
Having worked in corporate communications and social media now for more than 26 years, there’s one thing I’ve almost always found to be true: It’s easier to talk to and work with executives than it is middle management. But, you have to be smart about how you approach them. Number one: Always be respectful of their time and have a tight agenda going into each meeting. It’s not uncommon for execs to give you 10 minute meeting openings instead of half hour, so use your time wisely and uber-prepare. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to ask these execs some personal questions. Get them talking about their passions–do they volunteer? Do they have a particular hobby you know they’re invested in? The thing about execs is they’re just human being just like you. And everyone loves to talk about themselves. So using the same approaches that work with others (asking questions, being prepared, being an active listener) are just as true here, too.
Lesson #8 – Learned that there are two kinds of people: the givers and the takers
A number of years ago, I met Stacia Nelson, now owner of Pivot Strategies. She had just left Target and was starting as a solo. A few years later, she called me again for help getting a better handle on her LinkedIn profile. So, I had the chance to meet with her a couple times a month. During that time, I learned (quickly) that she’s one of the most generous people I know. With her time, with her money and with her resources. As a result, I will usually take every opportunity I can to sing her praises (privately and publicly) and support her. I’ve learned the hard way over the years to align myself with the “Givers” and avoid, at all costs, the “Takers.” You know the people. The information hoarders. The people always making asks of you. I get these in the form of coffees where people are looking for jobs. It’s always the people I’ve never heard from, who come out of the woodwork to ask me for help. They’re pretty easy to spot after 1,300 coffee meet-ups. And I’ve learned to quickly avoid and distance myself from them. Aligning yourself with the givers, people like Stacia, will making you so much happier and bring you so much more success. Meanwhile, the takers will keep taking until you have nothing left. I’ve seen it happen time and time and time again.
Lesson #9 – Learned that the way you make people *feel* can be very, very important
Everyone wants to feel good about themselves. Especially after a global pandemic, racial strife and a host of other huge issues we’ve faced over the last 2 years. And after 13 years of coffees this is something I’ve learned from many of the people I’ve met–like Natalie Bushaw. Actually, I’ve known Natalie since college, and she’s an incredibly talented communicator. But one of the things she does best is she always makes me feel good about myself after every interaction. Typically she does this by doling out compliments. Could be about my appearance. Or, it could be simple complimentary comments on a LinkedIn post. Or, an email after one of my weekly e-newsletters telling me how much she appreciates the content each week. Easy–but so few of us do this exact thing. There’s a lot of power in those simple compliments each day.
Lesson #10 – Learned that there’s just as much power in being the facilitator as their is the thought leader.
We put so much energy into trying to be thought leaders in many respects we have forgotten about the power of being the facilitator. This was something I learned early in the Twitter days from a woman named Sarah Evans. She hosted a weekly Twitter chat (remember those?!?!) called #Journchat which involved a mix of PRs and journalists. And sure, she shared pieces of advice along the way during the chats, but in this instance, Sarah’s power came from her HOSTING the chat. She brought in different featured tweeters, she organized the chat and she thought up the questions for the chat each week. As a result, her influence grew. She quickly became a popular speaker on PR and social media topics. She grew a consultancy, which she still maintains today. A lot of that started not by her being a thought leader, but by her being a host and facilitator.
Lesson #11 – Learned (quickly) how to make an ask
Back in about 2009, I remember hearing about Greg Swan. Seemed like a smart guy. Seemed kinda funny. Seemed like the kinda person I would want to know. So, I thought about asking him to coffee. But, I knew: 1) He had a very busy job at Weber Shandwick, 2) He had little kids, and 3) He commuted from South Dakota (just kidding–it was Chaska, but to city people like me it my as well be SoDak!). So, I knew I couldn’t just ask him to coffee–I had to make it hard for him to say no. So, I remember asking him to coffee: 1) At the Caribou right downstairs from his office in the Normandale Lake Towers, 2) At 7 or 730 am, before his crazy agency workday got started, and 3) Only for a half hour as to not monopolize his time. That art of making the ask has come in handy many times in my career–asking for volunteers with PRSA and MIMA; asking influencers to participate in client projects; and asking colleagues and friends to provide quotes from a blog post or to send in sound bytes for our podcast. Yep, the art of making the ask has proven to be pretty important over my career–and I bet it has major implications for yours, too.
Lesson #12: Learned that your network is just as powerful (if not more so) than your skills
In our business, at some point, skills become a bit commoditized. Most people can write. Most people can manage people (or they learn to). Most people can strategize. But, a huge differentiating factor for many people is their networks. Think about how teams search for new employees–what’s the first thing they do? “Do we know anyone who would be a good fit for this job?” That question usually draws a range of moans and “no’s”. However, if you’re someone with an extensive network, suddenly you can raise your hand and say, “yeah, I actually know a couple people who might be interested” or “I can make a post on LinkedIn–I bet that would draw some interest.” Replicate that process for the vendor search. And on and on and on. People with networks are incredibly attractive as job candidates–or, at least they should be. They bring not only their skills and abilities, which are important, but also the power of all the people they’re connected with. A power that should not be under-sold.
Lesson #13 – Learned that people are usually more focused on the basic day-to-day tactics than big-picture strategy (and that’s not all bad)
The funny thing is sometimes when I meet with senior leaders or execs many of their questions are really a lot more tactical in nature. This isn’t all that surprising since those senior leaders are usually pretty far removed from the day-to-day world. So yeah, strategy is important, but those day-to-day tactics are how you stay grounded in your profession. Don’t lose sight of those. No matter how high you climb up the ladder, stay connected to that day-to-day work somehow. Ask questions of your teams regularly about tactical work. Get in there and poke around on social media platforms to better understand how they work. Just because you’re a VP, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your hands dirty. In fact, I would argue that would be a huge advantage over your senior-level peers.
Bonus Lesson #14 – Learned that most people think they’re behind
This one’s kinda funny, especially when it comes to social media marketing. It seems like almost everyone I talk to thinks they’re behind, when in reality they usually are not. We’re all a bit insecure, it seems. Even me. And with social media telling us all the great things other people are doing each day, it breeds an environment where we all have professional FOMO. Other people are doing cool, interesting things–why am I so behind? Like I said, the truth is usually that most people aren’t behind. Instead, they just need to usually focus on the task at hand and stop worrying about “being behind”. What really matters is how are you using social media tools to help you achieve your company’s goals and objectives?