The Art of Networking

Being a pest is not the same as networking, and it won't take you very far. Take a lesson from a pro.


I spoke at an event recently before a group of about 100 young people. The group was very engaged. They had assembled to learn from a range of successful professional women, and they were poised to consume all the information being served. Many of the students asked questions afterward.

As I was leaving, a young woman rushed up to me as I was speaking with someone else. Rather than wait a moment until I finished talking, she reached her hand out to mine and stuffed a crumpled business card in it. And in a flash she was off, before I could say a word.

That awkward moment reminded me of a similar scene a few years ago. At that time, a grown man -- a professional with his own company -- walked up to me and slipped his business card in my pocket and then hurried off. I happened to see him a few minutes later, and I asked him why he had made the decision to do that. He said he didn't want to disturb me.

In case anybody else is under the false belief that it's a good idea to covertly network such that your networking partner isn't an active participant, think again.

A business card is just another scrap piece of paper destined for the trash can before the evening is over unless you do your best in the moment to bring it to life. Indeed, networking is far more than handing out business cards. There is an art to establishing a connection with other people and broadening your network of professional or social contacts.

Several of the best pieces of networking advice I've ever received came from Earl G. Graves, the founder of Black Enterprise magazine. I worked with him when I first launched my business, about 15 years ago. He is an early riser and strongly encouraged me to get up early, go to work early and be ready for whatever opportunity the day held for me -- before the sun came up. That was tough for me, having always been a night owl. I often find my creative stride well after the city is quietly sleeping.

But since I was working with this giant of a businessman, I decided to try his wisdom on for size. Good thing, because he liked to call me at 7 or 8 o'clock in the morning, even on weekends. And because I always got up, cleared my head and was attentive, he felt confident hiring me to handle a huge project for him as he also imparted priceless wisdom through every single interaction we had.

While it is essential to evaluate the outcome of a meeting -- whether formal or informal -- Graves cautioned that one should never engage in that debriefing conversation before leaving the building where the meeting took place. No elevator chatter, even if your comments are positive. For him, the web of networking is often private. Conversations, agreements, deals, transactions and even disagreements that occur under the cover of privacy often lead to greater ends.

One other insight from Graves was that when you want to make a connection with the big bosses, go to the event early. The magical hour for most after-work events has been inappropriately named "the cocktail hour." Yes, many people head off after work for a couple of hours of relaxation and libation. But if you are strategically looking to leverage yourself, your idea or a relationship, show up at any after-work function within the first half hour of its beginning -- not for drinks, but for connecting. Especially during holiday office parties, the owner of the company and other key executives usually do show up, but they greet only the folks who are smart enough to show up early as well.

Showing up requires more than just getting to the event, too. My daddy, the Honorable Harry A. Cole, who grew up during Jim Crow and went on to create a prestigious career in Maryland (ultimately as the first black judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals), taught my sisters and me that looking the part is essential.