For many professionals, networking conjures the image of a glad-handing politician, working the room with a two-hand handshake and a plastic smile. Or “eating a lot of rubber chicken,” with reference to banquet fare at your typical business luncheon. For many, networking evokes feelings of dread.
Yet, networking is an important part of the success of any business relationship.
You can develop productive relationships at business association meetings while “working the room.” You can also build relationships by being active on LinkedIn, by asking a client or neighbor for an introduction to someone who could help you, or by calling someone spontaneously to ask for business advice.
Networking often results in leads, making it a soft form of prospecting. Remember that you are networking to grow your network, but that may yield interactions with prospective clients.
When in your career to begin networking . . .
It’s best to start right away, says Judy Nitsch, PE’s retired founder of Nitsch Engineering in Boston, because it can take up to 15 years to build a useful network. She encourages you to begin building your network when you’re in your 20s, “because when you hit 35, you’re going to be a project manager and so will your cohort—they could be an owner, or they could work for a state agency, or they could be a potential teaming partner. You’ll be expected to bring in work, and if potential clients are people in your network, that will be easier.”
Nitsch points out that many of the professional societies and industry organizations, such as ULI, NAIOP, and CREW Network, have young professionals’ groups—a helpful and non-threatening way to start networking. “One year, one of our engineers who was six years out of college was chair of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers Younger Member Committee,” she says.
This young engineer was not only developing her network early, but she also was becoming known to the more senior members who were owners and at public agencies. A byproduct of attending networking events is that you can build skills that support you in other ways. It lets you practice your interpersonal skills, including your effective listening skills. If you’re just starting out, lean into your discomfort and attend at least two events a year; if you’re ready to take the next step, double that number.
You know by now that volunteering is an essential theme of this book. Joe Viscuso, SVP of Pennoni, points out that some firms will offer the opportunity for young professionals to attend events, like a business cocktail social, and no one takes them up on it. At the last minute, a partner may say, “We’ve got two extra seats at our banquet table. Who wants to go?” No one raised their hand. Joe advises, “Cancel your other plans for the evening and raise your hand for that opportunity.”
The Elevator Speech
When networking or being active in the community, it’s important to introduce yourself in an interesting way. Practicing an “elevator speech”—a familiar term describing a time-condensed introduction—is an effective way to hone your skill in introducing yourself. In networking, you’ll need three flavors of this speech: one for the non-professional (e.g., someone at church or a Chamber of Commerce meeting), one for the A/E/C professional (say, at an ASCE conference), and one for LinkedIn.
The Elevator Speech You Use When Talking to a Layperson
Andy Bounds, a communications consultant in the United Kingdom, offers some spot-on advice for composing your quick self-introduction, as paraphrased below:
First impressions drive everything. And how you introduce yourself will be other people’s first impression of you. Do you give enough thought to what this first impression will be?
In response to “what do you do?” what do you say? Most people say their job title: “I’m an accountant.” Now accountants are lovely things—I used to be one. “I’m an accountant” is not a good conversation starter.
Focus on your afters—why people are better off after you’ve done your work. Example: my intro is “I help companies sell more than they thought they could.” It’s intriguing (people are interested) and incomplete (because I haven’t said how I do it).
This means their next question is, “How do you do that?” And then the conversation flows. Much better than the alternative “I’m a consultant.” Which leads people to reply, “Between jobs, are you?”
Identify why people are better off after you’ve done your thing. Incorporate this into a one-sentence summary of your job. This will help people (and you!) see how valuable you are.
The Elevator Speech for A/E/C Professionals
Granted, if you’re in a room full of your peers at an ASCE, ASHE, or AIA event, it would be awkward to introduce yourself using Bounds’ intriguing and incomplete method. Instead, use your standard “I’m a bridge engineer for such and such a firm,” or “I’m an interior designer for an architecture firm that only does P-12 and higher ed design.” You could then add on, “What I’m working on now is getting 300 bridges inspected statewide in a mere 18 months,” or “What I’m working on now is learning to use new ceiling materials to improve classroom acoustics so kids can hear and understand their teachers.”
The third flavor of elevator speech is a written one for your LinkedIn profile summary.
LinkedIn Profile Summary (Your Written Elevator Speech)
LinkedIn continues to grow in importance to your networking efforts, so you’ll need a complete profile replete with an interesting description of yourself. To write a good LinkedIn Profile “About” section to serve as your written elevator speech, complete the following statements:
- My clients are [name the industries or types of clients you serve.]
- After working with me, they will achieve [name some of your “afters,” e.g., save money.]
- I do this by [describe your knowledge and skill disciplines.]
- I love what I do because [explain what gets you jazzed to come to work each day.]
Here is an example of a LinkedIn “About” section:
Municipal engineers count on me to help them to deliver a variety of infrastructure construction projects: underground utilities, development, commercial, and transportation. During the planning stage, I helped them obtain grant funding for their projects. There’s almost always money somewhere out there for their projects, and I can help them find it. They can then serve their citizens better by stretching their local tax dollars to the max. I learned how to find grant dollars during my 25 years working for the DOT. It’s a great feeling to take an LPA all the way through the project and get to share in their success.
There are dozens of books on the subject of networking, but here is a good one: How to Work a Room, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lasting Connections–In Person and Online by Susan RoAne.