The Art of Networking Conversations
“I nap every day in Davos sometime between the hours of 4-8pm. It’s the most efficient time to catch up on sleep so I can be fresh when the time is opportune. The opportune moments happen while dancing at one of the nightcaps or at a chateau where only a select group of people is invited. The conversations there can go on until the early morning hours.”
Here’s how to have real and meaningful conversations with new contacts. First, whenever possible, research them in advance. It’s not always feasible, but in some situations, you’re going to know who’s at an event. In that case, you can research them in advance, so you know a little more about them and their backgrounds and interests, so you can steer the conversation into fruitful areas.
Next, converse with the goal of finding commonalities. When it comes to building real connections, it’s also powerful to ask the question, what are you most excited about right now?
In all likelihood, you already know what to say because networking comes naturally to many of us – if we don’t think of it as networking. Stop thinking about getting that promotion and start thinking about making valuable connections.
Such questions might help you to start conversations and distinguish yourself from the crowd:
- What areas of your industry will offer the greatest opportunity in the coming years?
- What would you suggest that I do now to facilitate a transition into your industry?
- What excites you right now?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
- Where did you grow up?
- What do you do for fun?
- Who is your favorite superhero?
- Is there a charitable cause you support?
Be positive and genuine. People sense fake interests and tend to run away from such conversations. If you are visiting an industry-specific event, make sure to read recent news to be able to maintain the conversation. Don’t be too noisy by expressing your opinion too much, but also do not shy away when you have something to say.
We need to learn from the history of those who already have done what you want to accomplish. It doesn’t mean that you need to replicate their actions but to learn the most valuable lessons from their past experience. In order to do so, you might want to seek out a mentor or to become a mentor yourself. Both mentors and mentees can help grow a person’s professional network by introducing you to fresh newcomers or veteran problem-solvers. They each have value in their own right.
A former MBA student of mine — we’ll call him Reggie — was terrified of public speaking. He decided to enter the selection process to be the student commencement speaker, knowing he wouldn’t win but to push himself to work on those skills. He knew he’d have to write a speech and practice giving it. He was also very uncomfortable with networking, said it made him feel dirty. Now we talked about it, and I said, forget networking. Just reach out to a few experienced people and ask for help. What’s to lose? He did, and many ignored him, but some said yes. One was a class guest speaker who was terrific at public speaking. Reggie asked to meet for a few minutes to get some advice. So they met, and they met again, and again. It led to the speaker inviting Reggie to come along as an assistant on a whole series of speeches throughout Asia. Reggie learned so much and got so much great coaching from his new mentor that he won the contest and gave a phenomenal commencement speech.
It’s just one of the examples, we can surely say that the executives worth connecting with want to say yes to some mentee, because they remember when they were trying to grow, trying to improve themselves, trying to advance their careers. 
Let’s take a look at the case of a CEO of a medical services firm that is by far the dominant firm in its industry in the United States. It has as its clients more than half of the hospital systems in the entire country. The CEO said to one would-be networker, “Sir, my time is not my time.” Now, what did he mean by that? He said my time is a leadership resource. I owe it to our people, our company, and our clients to be very thoughtful about how I use my time. If I don’t, I’m being irresponsible to them and I’m letting them down. In other words, he has to be selective, highly selective. But there’s something else what is noticeable. He does meet with junior professionals, and not only in his organization, because he feels a responsibility to contribute to the coming generations of leaders and managers. So what he’s also saying is that part of his time is your time. Despite being over-tasked like most executives, he makes time to meet with people like you. And he’s not alone. In this regard, he’s not even unusual. Senior leaders know the challenges you face. They remember the doors slammed in their face and the helping hands that were extended to them. And something crucial is missing in their lives if they don’t connect with junior professionals and help them succeed. As in everything, their time is limited. They’re selective about which junior professionals they connect with.