By Cris Landa, Director of Learning
Networking sometimes gets a bad rap. It elicits images of happy hours full of superficial small talk and business card exchanges. But if you search for the word ‘networking’ in Google — what you’ll see are variations of human spiderwebs:
And if you zoom in, a key element of connecting the dots in the web happens between 3 people:
Person A, “You”, who wants an introduction, Person B “The Connector”, and Person C, “The likely interesting (and) busy person” who Person A wants to meet. The question is — how do you actually do it? — especially when you are early in your career and frequently find yourself on the side of wanting the introduction.
I have been Person A, Person B, and Person C, many times. I’ve used networking to get jobs, find mentors, and raise money. And, I’ve coached and trained VFA Fellows in this skill many times which has refined my thinking about the best way to go about building one’s network through professional introductions.
To start, ask yourself, “What, specifically, do I want to gain from talking to the ‘interesting busy person’?”
It sounds simple, but it is essential. Far too often I am asked to make introductions without knowing the ‘why’ behind the ask. It’s not enough to say, “So and so seems like an interesting person, are you willing to make an intro?” There are a lot of interesting people in the world. All of them also have limited time. So figure out exactly what you want from them first to make the best use of their already limited time. Are you trying to get a job? Do you need a mentor? Are you trying to fill a specific professional need (i.e. you need an investor, a specific hire, an office space, etc.)? Are you looking for advice or expertise?
Whatever it is, be specific and set realistic expectations on what you hope to gain. In my experience, the ‘connector’ is less likely to respond to an ambiguous ask.
The more specific you can get about what you really want out of the connection, the better it will be.
Figure out if the ‘interesting busy person’ is the right person to meet with to fill that need.
It’s tempting to want to connect with every boldface name or inspiring leader who you become aware of, but that might not always be the best person to help you reach the specific goal you’ve set. Let me explain. Venture For America once had the CEO of a very successful cybersecurity company speak at Training Camp. He shared his founder story with Fellows and many of them were impressed by his experiences and approach to leadership.
A few months later a Fellow asked for an introduction. My immediate question (as usual) was: “why?” The answer: “I’ve become interested in cybersecurity.”
On the surface, this is not a terrible answer (though it could have been more specific!) But, is the CEO of a large and successful cybersecurity company who has extremely limited time the best person to have this conversation with? CEOs get asked for favors a lot and tend to be extra protective of their time. They may not have as much insight into the day to day operations as someone more junior who works at the company, like a Manager or Director. It’s also possible that there’s an easier person to connect with first to get general knowledge on cybersecurity (like a peer who shares the same interest).
Showing conscientiousness about matching your ask with the person you want to meet builds confidence and rapport with the “connector.” It shows that you understand that sometimes people are guarded about making introductions to folks they know and that you’re more likely to be intentional going into any conversation you have.
Figure out who the “connector” should be.
Now that you know what you want from the Interesting busy person, figure out who the right person is to be your “connector.” LinkedIn can be a helpful tool to see where you have those degrees of separation. Group chats or Slack teams can also serve as tools for finding out if a peer has a connection to someone who will help you achieve your goal. Typically, the best “connector” is the person who is both close to the “interesting busy person” and who also knows you well enough that they are willing to help.
Mind your ask.
A good rule of thumb is to assume a “connector” will be willing to make three professional connections on your behalf unless that person is a close friend or family member. Use them wisely! Before you make the ask, keep this rule of thumb in mind, especially for those who have big, impressive networks.
Prepare for the introduction.
The key takeaway from this article is that if you are asking someone to make an introduction for you, you need to do the most work and make it as easy and seamless as possible so that both the connector and the interesting busy person say yes to your ask.
The article provides an example called a “self-contained forwardable email”, an email that has everything important needed for the “connector” to forward to the “interesting busy person” in order for them to say yes or no to being introduced. This has single-handedly transformed my ability to get connected with interesting busy people. There’s no more trying to write in someone else’s voice or copying and pasting involved. It’s a simple click ‘forward’ with a one-line question at the top to get the double-opt-in. In fact, we at VFA love Chris Fralic’s method so much that we invite him to Training Camp!
Get over the hump.
Networking can feel intimidating and uncomfortable, and people often have to get over the hump of asking the “connector” for an introduction. Remember, if you are using the right double-opt-in, forwardable email (step 5), asking the “connector” for an introduction is a simple one-minute favor. Networks are powerful and connections can give you a leg up, so take that step over the hump!
If you still need a little nudge, I’ll share my mom’s favorite saying: “El no ya lo tienes.” This essentially translates to “you already have the no” or… “what’s the worst that can happen?” Maybe you’ve wasted ten minutes writing an email and don’t get a response. That’s basically right back where you started.
Come prepared to the conversation.
Go back to step 1. Getting what you really want from one conversation will require a good amount of preparation. Make the most out of the meeting or phone call by being prepared with key questions and research. If the person has written anything recently or had an impressive or public win, note that when you talk to them and offer your sincere congratulations or appreciation. Impressing the “interesting busy person” can lead to more connections and can help you gain respect from the “connector” too.
Thank the ‘interesting busy person’ for sharing their time.
A thank you note is one of the best ways to maintain a relationship with professional connections. Not sure how to write a meaningful thank you note? There’s another Office Hours post for that!
Thank the “connector” for making the introduction.
I’m now in a position where I am often the “connector,” and I cannot tell you how rare it is to get thanked for the introduction beyond the one sentence: “Thanks so much for the introduction, Cris! Moving you to bcc to spare your inbox.” Taking the time to let the “connector” know that you were able to gain something from the connection can go a long way in professional relationship upkeep.
As noted in Chris Fralic’s article, circle back (all the way back)!
If you, three months down the line, get the job, get the mentor, get the professional gap filled, and link it (even loosely!) to the conversations you had — thank the chain of people with whom you met.
Before VFA, I was a teacher in a tiny town in Missouri. When I found out my husband’s schooling would move us to Detroit, I flexed my email and networking skills through three different career paths: teaching, nonprofit management, and the corporate world.
Once I accepted the offer with VFA, I emailed each person I talked to and let them know where I landed — even those who may have been disappointed by the decision. An example of one of those emails to someone who had connected me to teaching opportunities is below:
There you have it. Now connect away!