Mary Clare Freeman
Are You Looking to 'Find Your Network'?
I spent days dreading my first advocacy call for a special education student in 2010. I was 21-years-old, about six weeks into my first job out of college, incredibly awkward, and afraid of failure. A student of mine with severe emotional and behavioral disorders was in need of treatment that our school could not provide, and his future depended upon the success of the phone calls I would make on his behalf.
Following a long rambling introduction about the student and my fear that he could not be helped, my dread was quickly eased by the seasoned professional on the other end of the phone: “Don’t worry! We’ll get you in touch with the right people to make this happen for your student.” Immediately, she looped me in with the right social worker, school psychologist, advocate, and so on; within about six days, this student had a new education and treatment plan, and a new behavioral program that would change his life. This group of professionals became the network of individuals who helped this student, and many of my other students, succeed.
My student, who once could not sit through a ten-minute lesson without turning over a desk or screaming at a classmate, now holds a steady job and is able to support himself and his family - a future that seemed unfeasible 11 years ago.
I often think about what would be different about the successes of my students if this first phone call were a negative one. Because she was kind and understanding, acting out of the best interest of our student and not herself, I trusted her and felt confident in my own actions. That trust spilled over to the suggestions she made and the network she recommended.
The lessons I learned from this experience are the lessons that have defined my achievements as a professional, previously in the classroom and now within the private sector: that all fruitful relationships must be grounded in trust, kindness, and without ulterior motives. Equally, the success of any endeavor requires collaboration with like-minded stakeholders. These are also the same lessons that drive my actions when helping clients define, find, and build their own networks.
As with many businesses, at Alamo Solutions the pandemic forced us to reassess many aspects of our business model, including how we could do our jobs well remotely, and in particular, how we could help clients build both networks and trust without meeting people in person. A key aspect of our services is helping clients develop meaningful networks and partnerships through in-person introductions like roadshows, trade missions, and conferences. The right networks can ‘make or break’ the success of our clients, and I’ve learned that there are very rarely second chances at a first impression. I’ve equally learned that the best partnerships are built upon a common interest, mutual trust, and respect. Generally, this trust is most easily established when you are able to meet people face-to-face because they are not hiding behind eloquently written proposals or scripted calls. My father, a longtime public servant, always says “don’t tell me over the phone what you can tell me in person”. He means that the most effective way to do business is face-to-face - you can tell a lot about a person based on their handshake (another adage of my father).
When creating a professional network, particularly one that is international, trust is the first thing that must be established because of all the barriers. Networking is a delicate balancing act of personalities, cultural differences, language barriers, and work styles. Trust and communication don’t always come easily, but with in-person meetings, it is possible to read the unspoken cues and body language to moderate and lead these meetings in the most productive direction.v
Covid-19 presented us with several challenges, first having to shift to 100% virtual meetings and hope that people were still willing to come to the table during the uncertain times, and second having to navigate the complexities of in-person meetings without the ability to pick-up on the unspoken cues that help read an individual or situation. As a company, we were forced to reconcile how to create long-lasting relationships for our clients given the current restrictions, while navigating diverse personal and professional styles within the complexities of a virtual environment.
One specific client, whose success relies heavily upon physical meetings and in-person events to raise brand awareness and market their services, required a complete strategic shift due to the pandemic. What’s more, this client does not just have one service, but rather multiple services that in the past had traditionally been showcased in one meeting with the right people telling their story. Without in-person engagements, how could we support them in building those meaningful partnerships to help them thrive? How could we create networks to connect like-minded people with common goals and interests when we were unable to demonstrate that trust in person? And particularly, when everyone was suffering economically, socially, or personally during the pandemic, how could we help relationships flourish without seeming rude, off-base, or untimely?
We had to shift our strategy and needed to do so quickly. Our goal with networking is to always establish meaningful partnerships, with the word “meaningful” defined uniquely for each client. For this client, the term “meaningful” traditionally had an immediate dollar value attached to it; with the pandemic, this could not be the only measurable goal. To continue finding their network, we first had to redefine the term “meaningful” for the client. Meaningful came to mean establishing “x” number of formal partnerships that were both reciprocal and collaborative, with the hope of working together in the future as the pandemic stabilized. We shifted our sights to the long-term, not just focusing solely on immediate successes.
We next needed to create a new strategic networking plan with the academic research and evidence necessary to assure our client this was the appropriate shift and as such managing expectations. With the new strategic networking plan, we established four ‘themes’ we would highlight which allowed us to target specific groups and individuals. With these specific themes identified, we were able to guarantee a vested interest and some baseline of understanding before a virtual meeting took place.
Even prior to the pandemic, any networking events for our clients required extensive research and vetting so as to not waste the time of the parties involved and match the right individuals. As I learned from my first phone call all those years ago, the right people with a similar mindset made all the difference. In the past, we had relied upon our widespread network to help our clients build their own networks, however, this time, things were a little different. With the new strategic shift came a new strategic network, one we would have to build largely from scratch - during a pandemic and an economic downturn, all done virtually.
In the end, we held numerous meetings with diverse individuals and groups to help establish these new networks and create meaningful partnerships for the client. We worked diligently to make sure the right people were meeting one another in virtual meetings. An integral part of this was getting to know the client inside and out in order to make the right matches and establish a mutual trust for one another that would spill into all other activities. This determined all of our activities and ultimately defined our successes.
In just a period of six months, we were able to proudly report the following outcomes:
We successfully established over 20 new partnerships, all of which have led us to many more new introductions that are ongoing;
Several of the new partnerships resulted in formally signing MOUs with ten year commitments;
Months later, several individuals with whom we held meetings and commented they would like to revisit conversations when economic and Covid conditions had improved, have revisited with new business opportunities;
Our client has been invited to participate as an expert in various conferences and panels, has advised on white papers and various regulatory frameworks, and has raised both its brand awareness and name recognition in its desired markets;
And cheesily, to my liking, the client and members of their new network are now developing friendships.
Trust and understanding can be built without meeting in person (and it eventually did become easier to pick up on unspoken cues virtually), but finding that right balance did not come without its growing pains or failed attempts. At Alamo Solutions,this new strategic networking plan has helped us to improve our own practices and our own networks. A few lessons we learned from this experience:
Approach people without a hidden agenda, meaning it’s essential to start a relationship from a place of honesty, rather than only having an interest in taking or using individuals for your own benefit. You are here to listen, understand and find a common purpose. If there is not one, then we move on and are grateful for the meeting and the new knowledge.
First interview those individuals that we are most interested in presenting to our clients in order to find the right personality matches for meetings.
Always come to the table prepared. Have an understanding of what the expectations are of both parties, and lay out these intentions immediately so everyone is on the same page from the get-go.
Spend quality time with people by letting them express themselves and get to know them genuinely.
Front-loading your work will save time in the long run and will help processes run smoother.
Just as I learned from that first phone call on behalf of my student, building trust and identifying the right people to invite to the proverbial table under common goals, ideals and circumstances are essential in creating successful, long-lasting partnerships and networks. At Alamo Solutions we look forward to helping you in this process as well, working together to define, find, and build your own unique networks.
Photo by: Markus Spikse