Some of my favorite networking functions are early morning breakfast briefings. I am an early bird and most attendees have yet to face the minutia of the day, so they are likely to attend for the two critical factors: content and community.
I recently attended a Harvard Business School executive breakfast series featuring the president of a well-known corporation. It doesn't get much better than this. The content was interesting, and so was the caliber of the people both anticipated and found in attendance. Doors typically open at 7:30 am with the program starting around 8:00, and wrapping up by 9:00. I was simply amazed by the number of people who showed up after the program began and completely missed the opportunity to engage the attendees in advance of the content. Conversely, those who were prompt, if not early, had the opportunity to connect with some of the sharpest minds in the local business, political, and philanthropic communities.
Even at events with great opportunities such as this one, you tend to have those in attendance who, although polite and cordial, are not relevant to your current role, realm of responsibilities, or aspirations. Here's an example of someone I met. He's a poultry expert in a very obscure agricultural field that has little to no relevance within my current intellectual radar. After a few minutes, I quickly gauged that not only did we have little in common personally, but I could find little value to add to his efforts. Similarly, he brought few insights or knowledge of the types of clients that my business serves. I thanked him for his time and simply mentioned the need to say hello to a few others at the event.
The number one mistake most people make when they when they walk into an event like this one is that they spend the entire 30 to 45 minutes talking to someone who is not relevant to what they are doing, and they get sidetracked from their game plan. When I refer to the "wrong people," it is not intended to mean that some people have less value than others. I am simply trying to get you focused on relevancy. How relevant is this individual to the goals and objectives that you are trying to achieve? Please understand that this comment is not to be construed as manipulative. It's not about an elegant way of using people, but being smarter about how you invest your valuable time, efforts, and resources.
One of the best practices here is to identify what we call influential hubs. These are subject matter experts or those naturally highly connected who are consistently able to engage and influence others over a certain period of time. If you think of the classic bike wheel, they represent the hub in the middle with many spokes fanning out from that position.
Certain functional roles lend themselves naturally well to this concept. The best commercial real estate agents I know are very well connected in their communities to a multitude of possible direct client or referral sources. The best attorneys, accountants, insurance agents, recruiters, nonprofit fundraisers, lobbyists, and industry consultants are often very good hubs because of the diversity of friendships that they build over the years. It is critical to your relationship-building approach to identify those hubs and find ways to become an asset to them.
Remember that one of the fastest ways to turn off a hub is to go to that person and say, "What can you do for me?" Though these hubs are typically genuine and go out of their way to help people, you will quickly brand yourself a taker by approaching them in this way. What is critical to hubs, or to any relationship development effort, is that you truly invest time, effort, and resources in advancing the achievement of others.
During the follow-through phase, systematic, disciplined thought and action will drive recognition. If you believe in the premise that most people genuinely want to help, then it becomes incumbent upon you to not just follow-up (transactional), but follow through (transformational) the initial success in meeting and engaging interesting, relevant contacts.