The Dark Art of Networking

by Arbor Square Associates

John Kenneth Galbraith once said: ‘Business conventions are important because they demonstrate how many people a company can operate without’. Harsh words, but perhaps in some cases fair. And, with late winter private equity conference season now well and truly in full swing, and the biggest event of all – Super Return International – just a few days away, it’s certainly worth re-considering how best to extract value from these industry get-togethers. With regard to Mr Galbraith’s observation, I think what a conference should actually demonstrate is who in your team is capable of generating real ROI from such events (the ‘I’ being quite considerable in terms of time and, in most cases, financial cost).

Now I have to admit that I’m a bit of a freak when it comes to conferences. I don’t know if it comes from having been in the industry for many years and having been fortunate enough to make a lot of good contacts (and friends) in that time, but I really like networking. I enjoy catching up with people I know, meeting new contacts with new funds and new plans, telling people about Arbor Square, and generally figuring out how to get the most from an event. Of course, I’ve found myself in situations where my best laid plans have been challenged, for example the conference in Madrid which was conducted entirely in Spanish (a language which, unfortunately, I don’t speak), and have been mightily frustrated on many an occasion to find that the key people I wanted to ‘bump into’ haven’t turned up. And then there was the dilemma of how to introduce myself to TPG’s David Bonderman having realised that he was standing at the urinal next to me…. But all this is more than offset by those conversations and business card exchanges that you just know will lead to business somewhere down the line – something to chalk up as direct ROI against that event.

I’m not sure it’s natural to like these events quite as much as I do, or to think of them as a ‘mission’ in quite the same way. But you don’t have to like them or approach them with military precision to get real value from them. Indeed, interested in the art of networking as I am, I did a bit of digging around and found an interesting typology of networkers by executive coach Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of The 11 Laws of Likability: Relationship Networking…Because People Do Business with People They Like. She describes four key types of networker and offers suggestions as to the approaches they should take to best effect:

1) The Observer – Defined as someone who tends to hang back in a crowd, this person watches but doesn’t initiate, and rarely follows up after making new connections. As a result, their network is small and they are not at the front of people’s minds as a ‘resource’. The advice for the Observer is to make slight changes – consider following up via email or through social media, or perhaps invite someone to a one-on-one coffee or lunch. Perhaps tag along with a group until you get used to joining in.

2) The Reactor – This is someone who wants to make new connections but is more comfortable with someone else taking the lead. Perhaps they struggle to keep a conversation flowing, but are responsive to other people’s attempts to connect. The approach used by these types is more subtle, but sometimes a lack of confidence may get in the way. It is suggested that if the Reactor ‘stretches’ themselves a little more they will likely gain comfort. Setting goals to proactively reach out to new contacts is advised, especially given that it is unlikely such a networker will come on too strong and be seen as a nuisance.

3) The Initiator – This person is actively networking and taking a balanced approach. This approach is typified by someone who seeks opportunities, brings others into conversation, and follows up regularly. They have found ways of effectively staying top-of-head amongst their peers. The advice for an Initiator? Don’t change.

4) The Director – A Director is strategic and methodical about networking. It is a high priority for them and they take a numbers approach. To some, the approach may seem insincere or over-the-top. Such people are advised to give others more breathing room and to employ a lighter touch. They should try to ensure people feel that they value the time they are spending with them and not just looking for the next or more interesting contact in the room. They should consider timing, frequency and depth of conversation.

Interesting and thought provoking, especially for someone who, while hoping that he comes across as an Initiator, has to admit to some worrying underlying Director tendencies…. I’ll be working on this in Berlin next week and hope to see you there for some mutual rapport building.

Kevin McNally
Arbor Square Associates