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.
Even when I was a young child, I remember both of my parents teaching us what appropriate attire was for different events, the importance of perusing yourself in the mirror closely before leaving the house, and standing in the confidence of who you are before you ever encounter anyone else.
My father believed that if you looked the part, it would be much easier to be considered seriously. While I didn't grow up during Jim Crow, I certainly have seen my share of hostility, racism and sexism. Showing up crisp and ready to engage professionally with others can disarm any of those negativities.
My parents didn't stop at appearance. It's not enough to look the part, they explained — you have to be ready to fill the role. That meant preparing in advance so that we were armed with the information needed to be informed and intelligent in any potential conversation.
My friend Lola West, an entrepreneur in the money-management world, is a fine example of strategic networking. Several years ago she initiated a key, lasting relationship simply by reading up on the host of an event before attending. She read absolutely everything she could find about the main-event chair.
When she arrived at the event, she knew who to look for (she had seen her photo online). She made a beeline over to the woman and introduced herself. The brilliant icebreaker was asking the woman about a shift in her career that only one who was playing close attention would know about. The question sparked this woman's interest, and thus a warm professional relationship began. Now Lola is a regular guest of this other businesswoman, and the two of them have done big financial deals together — all thanks to a little bit of research.
Being gregarious even when you don't want to be is another tool for any good networker's toolbox. So many people are either shy or lazy when it comes to working a room once they get there. Look around at the next office party you attend. Chances are, most employees are standing around in clusters populated by the very people they work with every day. Rarely is there any venturing out. If that's your plan, why go out in the first place?!
If you have a clear goal as to what types of connections you would like to make when you walk out of your door, don't forget it once you arrive at your destination. Instead, survey the room. Scope out like-minded people, and make it your business to engage with at least one of them before you leave.
By the way, beware of hangers-on. I made the mistake one time of going to a large event that required truly working the room quickly with a friend who is somewhat reserved. Usually I go to events and mill about independently. She wanted to hang with me. She ended up feeling like a weight around my neck. She never initiated an introduction but instead clung to my every step. As you can imagine, I haven't invited her to work an event with me since.
It's really not that hard to make solid connections, even during the holidays. You just have to move with the intention that wherever you go, there is at least one person worth meeting. Forget spreading your business cards about like seeding a field. I vote for sharing them one by one and creating meaningful human connections that just may lead to great places in the future.
And by the way, if some of your engagements are virtual, please follow the same wisdom. So what if you can't see each other? Folks still don't want to be bum-rushed online. I'm sure you've used that "delete" button before when somebody pestered you.
Don't be a pest; it won't get you very far.
Harriette Cole is the president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. She is a life stylist, a best-selling author and a nationally syndicated advice columnist. She is a contributing editor to The Root.