Here’s How I Built My Network: By Listening, By Giving, and By Being Fully Present
7 minute read
It was early 2012. I sat at my desk, still crestfallen from a fateful phone call earlier that week with Starbucks, wondering what we were going to do with our inventory of over a million bottles of Blackberry Hint that were slated to go out to 7,700 Starbucks stores around the country. We were notified that in two weeks — two weeks! — Hint would no longer be stocked in their point-of-sale coolers. Howard Schultz had made the decision to replace third-party products (even the ones like ours that had been hugely popular with their customers) with higher-priced and higher-margin prepared food items. A business decision not in Hint’s favor.
Then my phone rang.
“Kara! This is Steve. Remember me — from Time Inc.?”
“Of course.” I said, forcing a smile into my voice. Steve was one of those people who was clearly headed for success wherever he ended up.
“I just read about your company, and I was remembering back to when you were an assistant at Time Magazine — how you’d always be telling the people going lunch meetings in the conference room: ‘Be sure to save the leftover sandwiches for me and I’ll take them home for me and my friends for dinner.’ Then you’d gather up the extra sandwiches that didn’t get eaten from those executive boardrooms and invite friends and co-workers for a picnic.”
Where is this going?, I thought to myself.
“I was zero percent surprised when I read about your success with Hint. Anyway, I’m at Amazon now.” Ok, I’m listening. “And we’d love to stock your product in our new Amazon Groceries. Would you be interested?”
And with that, our blackberry Hint inventory problem was solved.
Your Network is Everything
It’s perhaps no surprise to anyone that I—like many entrepreneurs and business leaders—point to my network as one of the most important drivers of my success. It was my network that allowed me to get a small test run of Hint in the early days (something that’s super hard to convince folks to do). It was my network that allowed me to get on the phone with a major Atlanta soda exec when I was just starting out—a call that helped me see I was onto something that other companies weren’t thinking about. My network has been a huge driver of business and customer acquisition. And my network is who I regularly reach out to when I’m facing a challenge, big or small, for advice or a leg up.
In so many ways, the people I’ve been lucky to surround myself with have gotten me to where I am today. I’ve been fortunate to cross paths with people early in my career who built successful businesses, and I’ve been lucky to be introduced to bold-faced names like John Legend and many others who believed in my vision.
Naturally, people are always asking me how I do it.
Here are just a few ways I’ve grown my wide and varied network—and tried to make the most of each and every one of those conversations.
Believe You Can Learn Something From Anyone
This mindset has been the single most critical element in my networking success over the years. All of my travels opened my eyes to this fact, and people in different cultures across the planet have taught me lessons just as valuable as the fellow businessman sitting next to me on a flight to New York.
I stay open to connecting with anyone, without preconceived notions of what will come of it. After all, you never know what secret expertise, contacts, or influence someone might have.
I was once seated next to a CEO I didn’t know at a large dinner. We had an enjoyable conversation, but it wasn’t until the end of the conversation when he gave me his card and I realized he was Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan. He had some great words of advice for me, and frankly I would have taken them whether he was the Chairman of JP Morgan or not. I thanked him — specifically and thoughtfully — and from there, a friendship developed.
Be Fully Present When You Network
In order to really get to know someone and build a meaningful connection, you’ve really got to be there when you’re talking to them. I’ve attended dozens of conferences — what are essentially networking events — and the every time that I’ve needed to stay connected to work or keep one eye on my phone, those conversations and relationships never ended up coalescing into significant connections.
It can be tempting to see networking as something that’s distracting you from your work. But networking is a critical part of your work. Carve out time for it, and let it be a priority when you do. Block your calendar. Turn on your out of office message. Put your phone away. Focus wholly on the person or people you’re talking to, and you’re much more likely to develop a meaningful relationship that can help you both thrive.
Listen More Than You Talk
When you’re networking, it can be tempting to tell as many people as much as you can about you and your business. But if you truly want your network to help push you forward, I challenge you to flip the script and approach it with a goal of learning as much about other people as possible. Be of service and be a great sounding board.
Not only does learning more about someone else make it more likely you’ll gain valuable insight from them, letting other people talk about themselves will probably make them like you more. Studies have shown that talking about ourselves gives the same pleasure response in the brain as food or money. So by encouraging someone to tell you about themselves, you’re likely creating positive associations with yourself.
It’s like the old adage goes: We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. You don’t want to be completely silent about yourself (that would be weird), but try to ask at least as many questions as you answer.
Ask and Offer in Equal Measure
Similarly, you never want to tap your network for constant help and favors without giving something back. A network flows in all directions and benefits from an exchange of knowledge, introductions, and good turns. Whether it’s sending a small and thoughtful gift or being available to weigh in on a challenge someone is facing, you want to be looking for opportunities to help your network, too, so you keep those connections strong and meaningful for years to come.
Sometimes, opportunities arise where I can help myself and my network at the same time. For instance, bringing a colleague on to my podcast is a sort of ask and offer. I get an amazing conversation to share with my followers, and they get a platform to share their message and product.
At the same time, you can’t be afraid to ask someone in your network for something directly when you see an opportunity. They’re unlikely to just offer up help out of the blue—and if you waffle around it or just hint at the support you need, you’re unlikely to get it.
Post-script to my first encounter with the CEO J.P. Morgan: In a subsequent conversation months after that fateful dinner, Jamie Dimon asked me why I never pitched him on ordering Hint for their offices. I realized what a huge opportunity I almost passed up because I wasn’t thinking about it, or maybe on some level, I wasn’t comfortable making that ask. Suffice it to say, don’t be afraid to ask. That’s what your network is there for!
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