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Hosted by Tom Henschel

Networking Conversations – Part Two


June 2024

Knowing she’ll need to network to achieve her career goals, an ambitious leader asks her coach what a good networking conversation actually sounds like.

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June 2024

Networking Conversations – Part Two

Tom Henschel

Networking + Elevator Pitches

Pavni had plans for her future. In a year or so, she wanted to leave her leadership role in a global corporation to become a chief officer at a mid-sized company. She worried that a major roadblock would be her distaste for networking. We spent an entire coaching conversation exploring her thinking about networking.

Explaining her distaste for it, she’d said, “It’s obvious I’m only talking to them because I want something from them. But we’re both pretending that’s not what’s happening. Ugh! Makes me want to take a shower.”

I agreed that putting a target on someone and taking a shot at them never feels good. I proposed the purpose of networking wasn’t to get something from someone else, but rather to get to know someone else. The goal was a relationship, not a checkbox.

She considered that, then said, “Okay. Suppose I’m having a networking conversation. And like you said, I’m getting to know someone. I don’t want to put a target on them, but I want them to hear what I’m looking for. That’s why I’m networking in the first place. What would that sound like?”

“Can I ask you to answer first?” I asked.

“Well, maybe I’m not understanding, but when I think about networking, I tell myself, ‘Before you go in the ring, you better have your elevator speech ready.’ To me, that’s what a networking conversation sounds like. It’s a pitch.”

I said, “Listen, don’t get me wrong, Pavni. I love elevator speeches. I think we all should have them ready to go, crisp and simple. But I don’t think they’re right for every occasion. And most of the time, I’d say, no, if you’re getting to know someone, an elevator pitch may not be your best friend.”

“But then what’s the alternative?” she asked.

Napoleon Pastry

I smiled at her and asked, “Can you picture a Napoleon pastry?”

“No, what’s that?” she said.

“Oh, god, I love Napoleons. They’re tall, made up of layer after layer of paper-thin filo dough. About a third of the way up there’s a layer of cream filling, then more layers of filo, then another cream filling layer, then more filo. On top is a hard sugar-glaze. They’re ridiculously yummy.

“Well, that’s how I picture a networking conversation. It’s a back and forth of thin little layers. One person, then the other, back and forth, building up the layers. No elevator speeches. Just an exchange.”

“What if my elevator pitch was a layer of cream?” she asked.

I laughed. “That could work!”
“But don’t hog the ball,” she said.

“Right,” I agreed. “No monologuing.”

I held up a finger, shrugged, and said, “Sometimes you’ll be catching up and one or the other of you will have a story to tell. That person will talk for a while. Fine. But, what you said, don’t hog the ball. It’s a conversation, not a monologue.”

She said, “Your point’s a good one. Remember I told you I got cornered a couple times at a conference? If any one of them had been able to have a conversation with me, I would’ve felt differently about them.”

“Why couldn’t they, do you think?” I asked.

“Because they each had all this stuff they wanted to tell me, and they just, blech!, threw it up all over me. It was like they knew they didn’t have much time with me, so they jammed in as much they could.”

I smiled at her. “Pavni, do you have fans?”

She was matter of fact. “People know who I am. And they want to talk to me. And I never mind that. I’ll make time for them. But not like that.”

“So there was a power differential involved,” I observed.

“They were more junior than I am, if that’s what you mean,” she said.

I asked, “Will that happen when you’re networking? That there’ll be a power differential, only the other way ‘round?”

“You mean me talking to someone above me?” she asked. “I hope so. I imagine calling some board chairs and people who are up the chain from me. Yes, there’ll be a power differential sometimes.”

“Can you imagine using the Napoleon method with those folks?”

The question sparked her. “Wow. If I did it, that would change everything.”

“How so?” I asked.

Napoleons Going Up

“I don’t know. I’d been picturing myself going in with a pitch – thinking I only have this little window with this person. Be prepared. Don’t waste their time.”

“Kind of like those people at the conference,” I said.

“But that’s it, isn’t it? When I go in loaded with my pitch, it makes me the junior party. But if I show up to build a relationship, then we can just talk.”

She thought a moment, then said, “I’m thinking about the people I have important relationships with. They’re the people I imagine sitting around my kitchen table with me. Everyone else is just business. Don’t waste my time and I won’t waste yours. Chop chop. But if I’m going to build networks the way you describe them, that is going to have to change, isn’t it?”

“In what way?” I asked.

“Well, I’m going to have to expand who I imagine is sitting at my table.”

“Say more,” I said.

She said, “With the people at my table, the people I care about already, I can do that Napoleon back and forth thing all day. That’s a pleasure. But now if I imagine having our CEO at the table, that feels different to me.”

“Because of him or you?” I asked.

“No! Me! That’s what I’m saying. I treat senior people with respect, and I wonder if that’s part of what makes me hard to get to know.”

I said, “I wonder if it’s an American thing.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“Well, this whole Napoleon idea is about taking turns. Talking, listening, back and forth. It’s very informal. Very egalitarian. It might not be a good fit for you.”

“You mean because I’m Indian?” she asked.

I shrugged, “Maybe. Maybe it would feel misaligned for you.”

“But that’s why I think I like it,” she said. “It’s going to stretch me. I have a very strict girl inside of me who is always pushing me forward. She’s the one that doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. And doesn’t want anyone wasting hers. That strict girl is who my direct reports are talking about when they say I’m hard to know. If I force myself to do the Napoleon thing, that strict girl is going to have to take a back seat.”

“And who would show up instead?” I asked.

Show Up As A Peer

“I don’t know. A peer, I guess. Do you know the saying ‘Dress for the job you want, not the one you have?’”

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, that could be what happens here, except it would be about showing up. I would show up like their peer, like the job I want. Let them get a test drive of me. See what they think. Show up like I belong there.”

“Act like a peer, get treated like a peer?” I asked.

“What do you think? Does that work?” she asked.

“If you mean does it help build a relationship, sounds like it could.”

“So, let’s suppose I’m doing the whole Napoleon thing. I could turn my elevator pitch into a sentence. I’d say, ‘I’m looking to be a chief officer in a mid-size company.’ I lay down that layer, then what? I just stop talking?”

I laughed. “Does that sound ridiculous?”

“It sounds like a missed opportunity.”

“Missed how?”

“Because that one sentence doesn’t tell the half of it,” she said.

“Right, I get it. But can I show you a different choice?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

I said, “Let’s imagine the back and forth for a second. Suppose whoever you’re talking with asks, ‘Where do you want to be in three years?’ That’s the first layer of dough. From her to you. Now it’s your turn. You add a layer, saying, ‘I’m looking to be chief officer at a mid-sized company.’ And you stop talking. Now it’s her turn to add a layer. And this is the part I love. You have no idea what her layer’s going to be.

“Maybe she’ll ask you about your current role. Maybe she’ll say she knows the perfect person to connect you with. Maybe she’ll tell you her Uncle Bob did the exact same thing back in the 1990’s. You have no idea what’s going to interest her. But if you let her drive the conversation to what’s important to her, she’s way more likely to get invested and put energy into it.”

“And she wouldn’t if I’m pitching at her?” she asked.

“I think people get invested when they have their own ideas. And if you keep talking, their ideas might not come to them.”

Imagining networking as a conversation between peers changed Pavni’s thinking. What surprised her was that she found herself talking with her direct reports in a more peer-to-peer manner, too. Relationships began to deepen for her, and that, she found, allowed her to show up with The Look & Sound of Leadership.

Core Concepts:
  • Allow networking conversations to be conversations
  • Avoid “pitches” that feel like speeches
  • Don’t ‘hog the ball’ when networking. Allow for a back and forth.
  • Allow the other person to drive the conversation
  • Display the behavior that fits the job you’re looking for.

Related Library Categories:

Free Essential Tool:

10 Rules of Networking
10 Rules of Networking

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