By Linda O’Flanagan
Whoever coined the phrase “networking” was on to something. Whether it’s cocktails, lunch or a fundraiser, it’s work. It’s working to build a group of interconnected people who could ultimately help you to be more successful in your professional life.
It sounds simple. So why is it so many of us find it so difficult? Why do we end up feeling like the wallflower at the high school dance? Or overwhelmed by a bundle of business cards we can’t match to a face? Or worse still, struck dumb by a simple question posed by someone who might just feel as awkward as we do?
According to Marny Lifshen, a professional networker and author of the book “Some Assembly Required: A Networking Guide for Women,” networking is not a one-size-fits-all strategy.
And while the simple concept implies it is pretty much the same for women and men, women do face different opportunities and challenges, from balancing career and motherhood to the glass ceiling and sexual harassment.
“I have always been good at networking,” said Lifshen. “I was blessed to have a lobbiest as a mentor early in my career and, if anyone understands the power of a good network, it’s a lobbiest.
“I learned so much about the power of relationships and access from her that it became one of my most important career development tools.”
For those not naturally gifted in the skill of networking, Lifshen said, “You don’t have to like going to large events where you don’t know anyone — that’s not what networking is about. It’s about the process of building and leveraging mutually beneficial relationships.
“If you focus on that as the real definition of networking, it takes the fear factor away.”
At a recent cocktail party filled with lawyers, brokers, title experts and even a television news reporter, Adelaide Polsinelli was the epitome of a networking expert. The newly-promoted managing director and principal of Eastern Consolidated and one of the top investment sales professionals in the city, Polsinelli was shaking hands, introducing people and smiling happily as she mingled with her guests.
It’s a long way from the shy young Italian American sales broker who worked in her boss’s shadow for the earliest years of her career. Polsinelli, though, is first to admit that becoming so comfortable at networking took work and, just like her career, she has spent years learning how to get better at it.
“First and foremost, you always have to get a sense of who will be at the event you are attending and do research on who you would like to meet and what they have been up to,” she said.
“Read industry publications, like Real Estate Weekly, before the event so you are well versed in current news and developments and can speak to what is going on. Then approach the people you would like to meet and ask them relevant questions about their projects or plans.”
Polsinelli said she believes that how you act and what you wear to networking events is just as important and what you have to say. Being polite and well-mannered in your business suit applies whether you are dealing with men or women.
When you feel like someone is being too flirty, be polite, respectful “and redirect any inappropriate behavior or conversation towards current real estate stories.”
Under no illusions that can be easier said than done, she joked, “If you are in a bind, introduce the problem person to someone else and move away.”
She added, “Bring many business cards and don’t be shy about handing them out. Smile and speak to everyone. You never know who you may be meeting.”
You may have already met Laurie Hutner, an executive vice president at commercial furniture supplier WB Wood and a veteran of the New York real estate networking circuit.
She said her approach has changed dramatically since she started out as a single mom, commuting from Long Island every day.Married now for 26 years and a grandmother of two, she said it is easy to become overwhelmed. The key is to be selective in the events you attend and to join industry groups where you can truly commit.
“I don’t think I have ever made a direct sale at a networking event in all the 34 years I’ve been doing it,” she said. “What I focus on is helping. I join groups where I can have an active role and where I can meet people. If I am not helping myself, I can be helping other people. That in itself makes you stand out.
“I like meeting people. I like helping people and, if I am remembered as someone who helps others, that can only be a good thing, both personally and professionally.”
Hutner is a member of IIDA (International Interior Design Association), IFMA (International Facility Management Association), CoreNet (Corporate Real Estate Networking) WX (New York Women Executives in Real Estate) The Special Olympics, the YMCA and SHARE, independent volunteer-run information technology association that provides education, professional networking and industry influence.
While that might sound like a lot of groups, Hutner said her ability to be selective about her role in each organization is what has helped her be a successful networker.
“A major benefit of being in an organization is to get on a committee and help service that organization, Just showing up isn’t going to cut it,” she said.
She recalled meeting a woman who was taking part in an Avon Walk for Cancer. “She was walking alone. But I knew a whole group of women who wanted to support the cause and so I introduced them to each other and it all worked out very nicely.
“I do it because I want to help people. I don’t expect that they then owe me. People get to understand who you are and where you’re coming from. I get to meet many amazing people but I am not selling anyone anything.
“I genuinely believe that truly good networkers have a genuine trait in common and that is helping. Whether that is introducing a young colleague to a contact I believe can help them, or taking a client to a gala, or organizing a fundraiser, I believe I am paying it forward.”
Like Hutner, Leslie Himmel, co-managing partner of Himmel + Meringhoff Properties, is a member of several groups.
“Networking is a key part of growing and enhancing my business,” said Himmel. “I network most effectively with the people who are in the various and sundry small groups that I either lead or belong to, specifically Harvard Business School Alumni, Partnership for New York , Young Presidents Organization, ULI, and REBNY’s Economic Development Committee, which I co-chair as well as REBNY’s Executive Committee. Also I support the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Real Estate Council and Lincoln Center’s Real Estate and Construction Council, offering further networking opportunities.
“You never know what can result from participating in networking events,” she added. “I had the good fortune of being a co-panelist with Jeanne Myerson, then the president and CEO of the Swig Company, at REW’s Women’s Forum in 2013.
“That meeting was propitious because it led to our partnering with The Swig Company to acquire the remaining 49 percent interest in 1460 Broadway in Times Square, which we are now in the throes of redeveloping and repositioning. The building’s office component, which will be vacant upon Skadden Arps departure, will also offer 35,000 s/f of retail space, possibly for a flagship, and phenomenal LED signage opportunities.”
Michele Medaglia, president & CEO of ACC Construction Corporation and a mother of young twins, has found direct success from streamlining her networking strategy.
She said, “I actually love networking — it’s one of my most favorite things to do. Fortunately, I learned a long time ago to never underestimate the power of networking. It’s beyond walking into a room with hundreds of people and finding the people who are your direct sources of business.
“For me, it’s the opposite. I have had great success in networking with smaller groups of colleagues, both men and women, many who have become some of my closest friends.
“We make introductions for each other, and that personalized networking has lead to many great client relationships and business for each of us.” Debra Cole, client relations director at HLW International has made “excellent” contacts at some networking events — contacts that have ultimately led to strong relationships and, eventually, business opportunities.
She said, “The key to making a deal through a networking event is to secure information early in the process. This is true, in general; preparation is the best way to establish long, lasting relationships and trust.”
Cole added, “I also never share information, which I received from a contact within one discipline, with their competitor. This is fundamentally about having respect for others in the industry. Pay it forward, I always say, which can mean helping when you can with introductions or information. This kind of professionalism will always come back to you in your favor.”
Deena Baikowitz is the chief networking officer of Fireball Network networking coaching, presentation training and business development consultancy.
She works with entrepreneurs, executives and associations in the real estate, hospitality, AEC and related industries to learn to work the room, build relationships and deliver a powerful FireballPitch.
Here are her tips to making it work:
Speak up! “Um, that like, soft little voice kinda like makes you sound like a soft little girl? Um, like, you’re not like a teenager. You’re a strong successful professional woman. You’re not sort of like a strong woman. You must speak with power and strength if you want to be taken seriously.
Business Card Etiquette:
One of the worst mistakes you can make is to take someone’s card and immediately stick it in your pocket. How will you ever remember who you met if you don’t look at their card? A card is a valuable visual cue. Hold the card. Look at the card. Read the person’s name, title, company name, and address. Then look directly at them. And ask about their title, company, job. “Your office is at 280 Park. What a coincidence. My office is at 250 Park. Let’s meet for coffee.”
Do not reject a compliment.
Lisa: You look great.
Jane: Oh no, I gained 10 lbs. I look like crap.
Do not criticize yourself in front of others. Do not say: “I didn’t reply to your email last week because I’m horrible at getting back to people. You must hate me. I’m the worst networker in the world.” Instead, try “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reply last week. I was closing a $25 million deal. I’d love to meet next week, tell you about it and learn about what you do.
Make a powerful first impression: Weak introductions make you sound weak.
Very weak: “My name is Rhonda. I work at a real estate firm.”
A powerful woman delivers a powerful introduction: “I’m Rhonda Smith. I’m the director of development at BigBigCompany. We’re the second largest investment firm in North America. My job is to take the company to number one.”