In the wake of COVID-19, I’ve discovered the single most important strategy for growing my three businesses is continuing to network.
If you’re only focused on what’s wrong or what’s in it for you, you’ll never experience golden nuggets of opportunity. The more I think about how I can help other people during this time and continue to build relationships within my network, the more value circles back to me in a positive way.
Before coronavirus, you could easily work a room and meet as many people as possible. In the Zoom room, you occasionally get put into breakout sessions, but for the most part, you’re stuck for a longer period of time unless you're hosting the meeting. That’s why it’s important to choose networking opportunities very carefully.
I am involved in a mix of 16 different networking groups and they all help grow my business to some degree. I make sure they fall into one of three categories:
Groups that feed your soul. They are not business-related, it’s person-to-person groups that connect you with your community. They lift you higher. Perhaps it’s a Facebook group focused on self-care or one that encourages you to go for a walk or a jog. Maybe it’s a group that meets on Zoom regularly to ask, “How are you feeling? What do you need to keep going? Are you okay?”
Groups to grow your business. These are the peer advisory networks such as Vistage and professional business associations. It’s the groups you feel comfortable floating new business ideas by to have reflected back at you. These folks challenge your thinking and offer fresh perspective to help you make better decisions.
Groups where your future clients, customers, and referral partners hang out. These are groups such as Business Networking International (BNI) chapters, eWomenNetwork chapters, local Chambers of Commerce, and Rotary clubs. Examining the origin of your customers and referral partners can also uncover these networks.
The challenge is how to locate clients and referral partners during COVID in a way that's not icky. Yes, that’s my technical term. This seems to be the biggest networking nut to crack for the CEOs I coach. Here are the steps I’ve taken to network throughout the pandemic from the safety of my home:
Ask people where they network. I start by asking people what groups they are involved in that they would recommend. One of my Vistage members suggested an industry association that meets in Zoom circles. She said I should be in the room because I could create value and receive value in return because they are my target audience. I joined the industry association and soon after they mentioned a conference coming up and offered me a sponsorship opportunity. I said yes and that turned into 32 prospects booking time on my calendar for a coaching session simply because I attended the conference.
Optimize virtual conferences. Go in with a plan and decide what you want to get out of a conference. Most sessions with a speaker will either be pre-recorded or a panel, but the networking sessions will be live interactions with higher ROI. Choose conferences that provide both the opportunity to be in a room with a talking head listening, and a room networking with people. During the industry association conference, I purposefully placed myself in networking sessions held every morning so that I could meet people and have real conversations. Of the 450 people who attended the conference, 40 showed up to network and they broke us out into rooms of 10. We were in speed networking rounds with 20 minutes to get to know each other; essentially speed dating. I find that funny because my coaching career began in the dating and relationships realm when online dating was just becoming a “thing.”
I took screenshots during those morning networking sessions and looked up participants after the conference. I sent authentic emails saying, “Loved what you said. Would you have half an hour to continue our conversation?” No longer can you approach the podium to meet a speaker after their talk, but you can find them on LinkedIn. You can email and say, “Great job, would love to learn more.” I wound up with some wonderful connections by being strategic and following up with conference speakers and attendees.
Use online networks to their full capacity. Before COVID, many introductions were made in person. Now we're forced to think differently to utilize organizations’ online platforms that were always available, but we now see more clearly and use more efficiently. For example, one of my Vistage members asked how do we effectively do mergers and acquisitions (M&A) during COVID? He was looking for ideas to boost his business through M&A. That’s how he grew his business before and how he wants to grow it again, but the pandemic left him feeling stuck.
Not only did our group brainstorm local M&A ideas with him, we mentioned how Vistage has a “deals network” and a network within the industry his company represents. We suggested he pose the M&A question to those online Vistage forums. Someone from across the country responded to say their cousin wanted to divest of a company that might be a good fit for this Vistage member to acquire. The man said he would make a warm introduction and then walk away. He didn’t need to be paid, he just wanted to help a fellow Vistage member. Today, my member is in active conversations to grow his company through the hidden value of the Vistage network. This value is really on the surface, but we forget to use it. These online extensions of our networks are rich with opportunity and connections to people we normally wouldn’t contact.
Check on people. I met someone I considered a neighbor, and fellow Vistage member, right before the pandemic. I’ve been contacting him monthly ever since because I know COVID hit really hard for a lot of people in our area. I ask how he is doing and if I can help in any way. One month, he responded to say he needed to replace a key manager because they planned to retire and wasn’t quite sure how to do that. He knew I had a background in that field and asked for recommendations.
With his permission, I connected him to another Vistage member who is a talent management recruiter in his arena. It was a win-win because I helped the recruiter grow her business, while providing assistance for the gentleman losing an important position within his company. I helped him and his company because I simply asked, “How are you doing?”
My husband laughs and often says, “You say good morning to someone on the street and they tell you their life story.” He is right. People tend to open up to me. When I worked in finance, all my colleagues would come into my office and put their feet up, one-by-one, share their life story, and we would solve all the problems of the world.
There is a technical, analytical side of me that is the former CEO, CFO, and Corporate Treasurer, and there is the side that spent a lifetime studying human design and development; “human beingness” as I like to call it. I combine those aspects of business, coaching and genuine caring and curiosity together as a Vistage Chair. Contact me to discover how I can help you grow yourself, your network, and your business safely from home.
If I can help someone discover that heart-to-heart humanness of where they are, especially now, and give them a helping hand, fresh idea or simple, “Hey, how are you doing?” that gets us all through this pandemic and helps us all survive and thrive.