I met the owner of an office supply company one morning in the latter half of 2014 at a St. Louis Bread Company in Chesterfield, Missouri. We became acquainted at a Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce networking event. He offered to meet later, hear my story and do what he could to help me make contacts.
It was just one small event in a long series that solidified everything I know about the power of networking. More on that later.
A few weeks before my meeting with my office supply friend, I’d been laid off for the third time in my career, let go without a severance package. I dove into contract work, attending any networking event I could find in hopes of starting to fill the pipeline and develop regular income.
Over coffee that morning at Bread Co., I shared my story, stammered about what I thought I could offer potential clients—I was still trying to figure that out—and then I asked whether there was anything I could do for him. Did he need any introductions? Could I connect him with someone in my network?
“No,” he said. “Don’t worry about that. Now is the time when you need to let other people help you. You’ll have a chance to help someone else later.”
He had given me a gift I will never forget.
He was right. I did need help. I had virtually nothing to offer, aside from my professional writing, editing and content management skills. And he was also right about the chance to help.
One networking connection begets another
Over the course of about 10 months, from late spring 2014 until early spring 2015, I benefited from the kindness of numerous individuals. I met them in restaurants, at Starbucks, at Bread Co., and at Kaldis. I met them one-on-one and I met them in crowded bars and teeming conference centers.
I asked for a meeting with a man I’d had a passing acquaintance with, a local legend in social media management and creative marketing strategies. He connected me with someone who offered me freelance work. I’m still doing work for his firm as part of my side hustle.
I met a woman at a massive networking event in the lobby of a university auditorium. She now runs her own staging business for home sellers. She invited me to meet for coffee later and persuaded me to attend another networking event, where she introduced me to her friend, a leading real estate agent in the area. When I casually mentioned I needed to stop and buy stamps later, she offered me one from her purse—and invited me to meet later for coffee so she could hear my story.
That led to another networking event that she hosted each month. At this one, around Christmastime 2014, I met her husband, the CEO of a local nonprofit that works with top MBA programs to recruit underrepresented minorities into business school.
Soon, I was speaking to his team about a regular contract gig doing communications work for his organization. Eight months later, the organization hired me full time.
Cultivating the networking connections
Meanwhile, another connection from an earlier point in my career had connected me with the communications director at Washington University’s Olin Business School. As luck would have it, she almost immediately had freelance writing work available for me. She and her colleagues offered me writing work for most of the next 16 months.
Over that period, I worked hard for the nonprofit and continued with the freelance work I’d managed to cultivate, thanks to the contacts I’d made through regular networking and the generosity of the people I met.
Then, everything converged. The communications director at WashU’s business school retired. I’d been working for her and her colleagues. I was employed full-time for a organization that worked with business schools, so I was conversant in the topic.
They offered me the job. A job that plays even better to my strengths. A job that paid me more and that lets me work on a gorgeous campus surrounded by some of the smartest people in St. Louis.
And that’s where I am today.
Lessons learned about networking
I’m no expert. There are plenty of people who profess to be experts at networking—and they probably are. Also, this post doesn’t begin to pay homage to all the people who helped me make connections, offered me opportunities and reassured me.
I can only tell you what I’ve learned about networking.
- It’s the only thing that works. If you want a job, you have to network.
- People genuinely want to help—even if they’re people you’d presumably be competing against for opportunities.
- Don’t end a networking meeting without asking two questions: How can I help you? Who else do you know that I should talk to?
- You never know, Part I. You never know where the opportunities will arise. I met so many brilliant people who filled unsung niches in the business world. They were financial analysts, purveyors of marketing tchotchkes, wine sellers and more. Few could use my services, or would value it. But often, they’d know someone.
- You never know, Part II. You never know how long it’ll take for opportunity to arise. One networking visit ended with a freelance opportunity on the spot, which developed into a longer-term gig. The nonprofit opportunity I described took five months to gel after meeting the woman who became the first link in that chain.
- Be interested in what other people do. It’s not hard. They’re interesting.
- ABN: Always be networking.
- Accept help. Know when you need help and accept it. Because you’ll have the chance to help others later.
- Later, help others. Since going through my own challenges, I know of at least two people who got jobs because of connections I helped them forge. I never turn down a networking meeting because I never know whether it will be a chance to help out again. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve had the chance to return the favor.
Today, I’m employed full-time again and I maintain a few small freelance jobs on the side. I confess that I’ve let my network start to grow fallow. Such is the curse of those who get a regular W-2 paycheck, I suppose. But I know my network is there, bigger and stronger than ever. And I hope that when I need it, they’ll be there for me again.