The other day I was lucky enough to sit for an hour with the Acumen Fund Fellows for a talk on networking given by the wonderful, inimitable Sunny Bates. Sunny is a natural connector, full of joy and exuberance, brimming with energy.
Would that an afternoon with Sunny were mandatory for every MBA student – who inevitably has been misguided into thinking that “networking” is about making a beeline to the most “important” people in the room (defined how?), giving them your pitch and collecting their business card.
Sunny talks about building and cultivating your personal network – the one asset you bring with you everywhere you go – and constantly feeding that network through your own generous acts. Your network strengthens because you feed it – by making connections between two people who would enjoy meeting each other, starting a business together, or just sharing ideas; by helping others accomplish their goals.
This kind of active nurturing is a mindset shift that takes the instrumentalism out of each interaction while at the same time leaving space for asking for things that YOU that you would like others to help you achieve, the more specific the better.
To do this well you have to get good at making the right ask in the right time and the right way – which is about the timing and pacing of what you ask for as well as the medium.
For example, in the course of any healthy personal/professional relationship you might ask someone to: attend a party, serve as a judge on a panel, give a keynote address, fund your startup, give job advice to your niece, serve on your board, help you on a thorny strategic question, be a mentor.
Since these many threads are interwoven, and since there are asks flying in both directions as relationships deepen, my advice is that you make big asks in big ways, small ones in small ways.
Small asks over email: come to this party, serve as a judge, talk to a friend, speak at a conference
Medium asks over the phone: spend a day brainstorming with me and a group of peers, quick advice on something I’m stuck on, “do you know anybody who…”
Big asks in person: we’re stuck on this strategic question, help fund this idea, serve on my board.
Obvious when you write it out, but lately I’ve seen people trip up by asking for a meeting that’s billed as a broad, strategic conversation, and then spending the precious hour they have been given asking for something much too small. The person will say yes to this small ask, but you won’t get an hour or an afternoon from them the next time you ask.