By building a solid and deep network of contacts, business executives can expand their presence in the market, enhance their brands, find new customers, forge new partnerships and even launch new enterprises.
For many, however, networking remains a mysterious art form, and its return on investment can be difficult to quantify.
The equation is further complicated by the onset of new technology that is creating new avenues for building networks of contacts.
At its essence, networking is all about access and building relationships, said Bridgette Ridgeway, president of TaylorField & Co., a Milwaukee-based public relations, marketing and business development firm.
"Power Networking is the exchange of ideas, information and resources to build mutually beneficial relationships," Ridgeway said.
In recent years, Ridgeway has used networking to catapult herself into the Chicago and Milwaukee markets.
"Networking is not about exchanging business cards, but strategically identifying who you want to talk to," Ridgeway said. "Have a prepared introduction, listen to the person you are talking to, develop a dialogue around common ground for small talk and then find the opportunity to give your card to that person."
Ridgeway's network is extensive because she has made efforts to stay connected to people she has met throughout her career and because she never throws away a business card.
She has 74,000 people in her e-mail system, which is cataloged by different business groups.
Ridgeway started TaylorField & Co. in 1993 to serve as a business for her freelance consulting projects. In 2003, after a two-year public relations career with an advertising firm in Chicago, Ridgeway decided to return to the Milwaukee market to re-brand herself as a full-time independent consultant.
Around the same time, she accepted a position as the campaign press secretary for then-acting Mayor Marvin Pratt.
Ridgeway's company, which has five employees, conducts a seasonal TaylorField Power Networking Reception for elite business executives and public officials and offers media and power networking boot camps to help people maximize their opportunities.
Her third Power Networking Reception, to be held April 25 at Miller Park, will feature keynote speaker Stedman Graham from Chicago. Graham, who has written nine books, is the chairman and chief executive officer of S. Graham and Associates, a management and marketing consulting company. He also is known for his relationship with Oprah Winfrey. Ridgeway is expecting more than 500 people to attend the event.
For another Power Networking Reception to be held in the Milwaukee area in July, Ridgeway is trying to land a high-profile speaker, and she said possibilities include former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) or U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois), among others. Ridgeway is hoping to schedule the event during the same week of the NAACP convention in Milwaukee.
Such events would not be possible without Ridgeway's vast network.
"When you go to network, you go to meet people, and while you are there, you might actually meet people who you can help and who can help you," Ridgeway said. "That is not the primary reason for going, but it happens. I like to talk and mingle, and when you talk and mingle and are natural, people kind of gravitate toward you. That is usually how I grow my network."
Ridgeway was forced to hone her networking skills when she accepted a job at an advertising agency in Chicago. She joined the company as the senior vice president of public relations without any employees to oversee and was given the responsibility of creating the department herself, Ridgeway said.
During her two years of commuting from Milwaukee to Chicago, Ridgeway worked with clients such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Pactiv Corp. (manufacturer of Hefty products), American Family Insurance Group and Abbott Laboratories.
"I literally had to beat the pavement and introduce myself to the media personalities in the market and the advertising and public relations firms in the market," Ridgeway said. "I made sure that we were on every list for the university systems throughout the state and on the state procurement Web site. In the private sector, it is all about relationships. I cannot even tell you how many countless black-tie affairs, dinner appointments and early morning breakfasts I went to. I was constantly introducing myself and our agency to build that division for the company."
Ultimately, Ridgeway decided to reconnect with her Milwaukee market, while still maintaining the contacts she had collected in Chicago.
Ridgeway eventually crossed paths with Pratt. The people she met on the campaign trail have helped her to expand her Milwaukee network of corporate executives and public officials.
She shares her expertise at her Power Networking Boot Camps.
"I would hate it if people came to my reception, only exchanged business cards with a couple people and did not know how to cultivate those relationships," Ridgeway said.
Ridgeway said executives should have a prepared and a rehearsed "elevator speech" of about 30-seconds to describe their businesses.
At the Power Networking Boot Camp, Ridgeway teaches business executives how to be professional and personable. She teaches techniques and strategies for connecting with other people.
For instance, when meeting high-profile acquaintances, an executive should avoid acting like a fan, but should engage them in professional conversations, she said.
"At a networking event, you may have less than 30 seconds to make an impression, and if you fumble the ball, you have immediately lost that person's interest because you cannot even articulate who you are and what you do," Ridgeway said.
According to Ridgeway's research, 10 percent of the people an executive interacts with at a networking event can eventually become a client.
However, to reap the benefits of personal networking, business executives must be willing to keenly listen to the other people they meet, Ridgeway said.
Another beneficial approach is to set a personal goal of how much time each month should be spent on networking and stick to it, she said.
In addition, an executive should establish criteria for identifying events that will be worth the time spent, she said. Ridgeway targets events involving pertinent topics or people she might not otherwise have access to.
"That's what it's all about," Ridgeway said. "Networking is a means to an end. And the end is to hopefully improve our Wisconsin economy, our quality of life and to help our businesses grow."
Tips for Power Networking
• Write down your short- and long-term networking goals (be specific).
• Know a little about the event, speakers, topic or theme before you arrive.
• Come prepared to network, circulate and meet new people.
• Don't spend too much time with one person or group.
• Practice your 30-second "elevator speech" before you arrive.
• Keep up with local and national news and events, and be ready for small talk.
• Listen, ask questions and focus on the person you're talking to.
• Bring lots of business cards and have a fumble-free system for giving and receiving cards. Be ready to jot down notes for future contacts.
• Get organized. Develop an easy filing system to categorize your network and stay in touch with them.
• Follow-up and follow through on any promises you made.
Source: Bridgette Ridgeway, president of TaylorField & Co., Milwaukee.
Clicks can complement bricks
The Internet increasingly can be used by business executives to efficiently expand their networks.
Creating a network on the Internet can give a businessperson more leverage than he or she may have in person, said Konstantin Guericke, co-founder and vice president of California-based LinkedIn Corp. (www.linkedin.com), an online networking community.
LinkedIn was founded on the premises of "Six Degrees of Separation," "It's a Small World After All" and other testaments to the world community, Guericke said.
Members of LinkedIn can create their own online network that is visible to viewers of the site.
Through a stretch of up to four degrees, LinkedIn connects a member's network with another member's network with the hopes of increasing business contacts and opportunities, Guericke said.
"The most effective networking we know of is when someone introduces you to someone else," Guericke said. "We focus on the referral. Getting a referral from LinkedIn means you get a hold of your contacts and find out who you can get referred to. That itself is impossible offline."
The Web site, which was created by Guericke and four business partners in May 2003, has a current total of more than 2 million users around the world. The site has facilitated more than 500,000 introductions, and 97 percent of the members have joined by responding to an invitation sent by a current member, Guericke said.
"The members of LinkedIn are people who already have a network and are just trying to use it more efficiently," Guericke said. "Some enjoy meeting new people and connecting, but a lot of people just don't have the time to go (to a networking event)."
The site does have options for those looking to start a network online, in which members can create a profile and search by industry, region, company and name for possible connections.
LinkedIn not only helps build a network, but it has been used to find service providers and jobs.
Last month, LinkedIn added a job-posting site called LinkedIn Jobs, which allows its members to post job openings, and LinkedIn JobsInsider, which allows companies to see a candidate's LinkedIn connections and contact those connections for possible comments about the jobseeker's work ethic and experience, Guericke said.
Networking organizations that meet face-to-face are also finding that an online component can both boost the notoriety of the organization and further its members' networking goals.
The Networking Community (the-networkingcommunity.com) is an online resource of local networking organizations recently founded by Dan Williams. The Networking Community
also holds monthly networking events in Milwaukee that are open to the public.
Williams brought the Networking Community to the Milwaukee area after launching the organization successfully in Washington, D.C. Since 2000, the D.C. Networking Community has become the largest group in the beltway area, with 980 direct connections to businesspeople, Williams said.
"What is different about The Networking Community is what I call a combination of clicks and bricks," Williams said. "People need the technology along with personal networking to keep awareness alive and to keep in contact."
The Networking Community is both a way to learn about organizations and a way to stay in touch after networking, Williams said.
Williams previously worked in the technology industry for more than 30 years. When the dotcom economy imploded in 2000, Williams said he was left with no contacts and was forced to create his own network.
The Networking Community originally was created as Williams' personal online Rolodex, but he quickly realized he could grow a business from what he had experienced.
"If you rely on one person or relationship for your business, you are very vulnerable," Williams said. "Most companies are trying to get away from that through networking events or technology, and I think that is the blend that really works."
The culture of a networking group usually reflects the personalities of the people who founded it, Williams said.
"You have to find your group that fits your culture and style," Williams said. "Find one that fits your needs and don't give up. There is one out there. Just give it some time."
Internet networking resources:
LinkedIn corp.: linkedin.com
the networking community:
Target your opportu nities wisely
By elizabeth geldermann, of SBT
By elizabeth geldermann, of SBT
Effective networking involves more than simply being able to schmooze with other people or "work a room."
Business executives also must identify the most effective and efficient opportunities for networking, based upon their corporate needs.
For starters, local chambers of commerce offer opportunities to reach niche groups through events such as CEO roundtables, sales clubs meetings and business-after-hours gatherings.
Ruth Graczkowski, vice president of Outward Focus, has been a member the Resource and Referral Alliance (R2A), a local networking organization, for nine years. The R2A has a downtown Milwaukee chapter and a west chapter that focuses on the Waukesha County area.
The organization measures the number of referrals passed through its members and the amount of business revenue created by those referrals. Since its inception in Waukesha County 11 years ago, the chapter has helped generate more than $11 million in business, Graczkowski said.
Because the idea of R2A is to build business relationships on a more personal level, prospective members cannot have businesses that compete with other members.
"People are committed to really helping each other, and the quality of their referrals is much higher," Graczkowski said. "I have people refer me (to potential clients) that know about me and my family and how I got into my business. They have a good feeling of who I am, and when I walk in (to meet a client), half of my sale is done. The idea that I would refer someone that I met last week is inappropriate. I have to build a relationship so I know how to help."
The Executive Resource Group, located in the Milwaukee area, works in a similar fashion. Meetings are on alternating Wednesdays, and the group does not allow members who would compete directly with current members.
The Executive Resource Group also only accepts professionals who hold senior or executive level positions. Collectively, the current members average 20 years of experience, said Cheryl Muskus, president of Muskus Management Corp.
"I don't want to benefit in any way other than servicing my client," Muskus said. "There is no pressure to refer, and we focus on the types of business we might be lacking and bring in a guest speaker on the topic."
Muskus said she also has gained business and contacts from joining the Women Business Owners Network. Both organizations provide a step beyond networking to focus on relationship building, Muskus said.
Referrals from customers, from personal friends and from business relationships are critical for a young company attempting to build its brand, she said.
A combination of networking and cultivating business relationships with clients and contacts annually results in 80 percent of company revenue for Linda Graebner-Smith, director of business development for Interior Investments of Milwaukee LLC.
"The first year I was in a business development role, I was giving out a lot more referrals than I was getting," Graebner-Smith said. "But if you are smart, tuned in and give appropriate and timely referrals that turn into contracts or projects, it will come back to you."
Networking is successful when an executive has created a memorable experience with potential clients, customers or business cohorts, she said.
Networking has led to 90 percent of the company revenue for Donato Diorio, founder and chief executive officer of Broadlook Technologies in Pewaukee.
Networking must have a philosophy and ethics behind it, Diorio said. Diorio creates some business relationships by partnering with companies in which both benefit by selling each other's product in a package.
For a technology company, referrals are the most important aspect of selling, Diorio said.
"We have to teach people what we do before we can even sell something to them, so it is better that a referral comes from a trusted source."
Business executives who are uncomfortable or not confident in their networking skills would benefit by first attending events and joining organizations developed to helping them overcome their shortcomings.
"I was not very good at networking, so I joined the Waukesha Chamber of Commerce and attended a meeting for a group called Sales Club," said Jason Kayzar, co-owner and chief financial officer of Milwaukee-based MC2 Inc. "I decided to jump in with both feet and made a personal commitment to attend the meetings for one year. It has
been two or three years, and now I tell the chamber that I pay for my membership in the first month of every year with the business that I have gained from networking."
Kayzar prefers events where attendees mainly discuss business.
"Networking is about understanding that we want to have a business relationship and are focused on how to help each other," Kayzar said.
Debra Auer, CEO of Wauwatosa-based Express Drug Screening LLC, goes to as many networking events as she can that fit her company's niche. Auer said she prefers the business-after-hours events because she has the opportunity to scan nametags in the room for business people who seem well-connected or could become future clients.
After two years of networking, Express Drug Screening has tripled its business, Auer said.
Auer said she and her business partner, CFO Theretha King, are always trying new organizations to see if they are a fit for the company. After three or four events, Auer and King decide if they want to join the group or move on.
"Either way, you are getting your name out there," Auer said. "If you get your name out there and get to know people in the group, it snowballs. Now people know your company or your name."
March 18, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI