From what I have seen thus far in my journey helping lawyers build businesses, there is one struggle that seems to be shared almost universally among them. It is the conflict that arises in their minds because they believe that in order to build a business they have to “ask for work” but the idea of asking for work is utterly appalling to them.
This conflict has a negative impact on how they approach many important business development activities — first on the list being their approach to networking.
The University of Toronto’s Tiziana Casciaro and her two co-authors studied the psychological impact of professional networking on individuals. The research disclosed that, to many professionals, networking feels “dirty” because they perceive the intentional pursuit of professional relationships to be motivated by self-interest, which is more “arduous to justify to oneself morally” than is the creation of friendships or personal ties, which they do not perceive as suffering from the same taint of self-interest.
Anecdotally, I can confirm that I see that perception raising its head again and again in my practice, and it has almost always had a detrimental impact on the level of success my clients have experienced up to that stage in their careers.
The solution to this tension, and the route to the place where networking becomes a positive and enjoyable experience for people, lies in changing one’s mindset around networking — in particular, changing your understanding of the goals and objectives of networking away from being self-serving and self-interested and toward being contributive, generous and genuinely aimed at providing value to others.
There is a great little book called The Gift: A Revolution in Networking Mastery by Matthew Ferry, et al. that I sometimes give to clients as a resource to support them in changing their mindset around networking to “What am I here to give?” from “What am I here to get?”
It advocates for networking in accordance with a principle the authors call The Law of Contribution, which states that your level of happiness and success is directly proportional to the number of people you serve selflessly. By operation of their theory, any opportunity you have to meet or engage with people is an opportunity to make a positive contribution to their lives in some way, which will in turn manifest in stronger relationships, greater satisfaction and greater success in your life.
If you follow this theory, when you go into a room or an interpersonal interaction of any kind, the thoughts at the front of your mind are: “How can I contribute? What can I do to provide value or serve to this person/group/community in a way that matters to them?”
That approach drives an interaction characterized by curiosity, interest in others, a lot of questions and a genuine investment in the interaction rather than an interaction in which you feel like you have to persuade someone to do something for your benefit or broadcast your value proposition in just the right way to make someone in the room want to hire you.
So what do I mean by “contributing?” How does one go about “providing value” or “serving” in this context?
What constitutes a contribution, value or service depends on the context in which you are trying to define it.
I use the idea of creating social capital to guide me in trying to define how I can contribute in any particular circumstance. Just like other forms of capital, it will continue to accumulate and when it reaches a certain level it will start to pay dividends and you will start to be able to draw against it for the things you want or need. But you have to make enough deposits into your social capital account before you will be able to comfortably start to withdraw against it.
You create social capital for yourself (make deposits) when you contribute one or more of the following three things to someone else:
1. Your people: The connections and relationships you have in your network are incredibly valuable. Connecting people appropriately and in a manner that could benefit both of them is a service to both of them. Natural connectors are not that common, but everyone can learn the skill and develop the habit of catalyzing valuable connections.
2. Your skills/talents/knowledge: You have both inherent and acquired skills, talents and knowledge that are also incredibly valuable. They might not seem it to you because we tend to underestimate the value of the things that come easily to us. But trust me when I tell you that many, many people in the world have need of your skills, talents and knowledge. When you learn in the course of interacting with someone that they are struggling with something that would be easy for you to help them with, don’t hesitate — make an offer.
3. Your emotional investment: The sense of genuine human connection is becoming more and more rare and, therefore, more and more valuable in our world. Your genuine excitement, support, empathy and any other form of emotional investment will often be extremely valuable to others. So many people feel like they are isolated in their experiences. When you see an opportunity to cheerlead or commiserate with someone with whom you are interacting, don’t hold back. Sincere and appropriate emotional investment resonates with people in the deeper parts of their brains and causes the release of dopamine, which is associated with feelings of connection, friendship and loyalty.
The vast majority of us went into law because we wanted to help, solve problems, fix things. Given that that is how we are naturally wired, it stands to reason that if we get out in the world with a mindset that is consistent with that wiring and aim to help wherever we can, we will feel more comfortable and authentic.
You will also be much more compelling to the people around you and more likely to inspire those with whom you are interacting to want to engage with you more. That will lead to the generation of authentic relationships that include a lot of potential for co-creating opportunities that are beneficial to both of you. And isn’t that really the point? Don’t we all really want to work and share opportunities with the people we admire and who inspire us?
It certainly makes networking a lot more fun than doing it the way so many lawyers believe you have to do it, which is to hand out your business cards far and wide, to broadcast how great you and your firm are and to try to persuade people to give you the opportunity to prove that to them.
Give it a try when you find yourself living in dread of your next networking interaction and let me know how it goes!