Last week, more than 90 functional fitness professionals gathered in Portland to learn from some of the leaders in the industry, as well as each other, at the Iron & Mortar Summit, which I co-founded and have co-organized for the past three years.
Our goal is to build a collaborative of like-minded business owners who are willing to share what they are learning with one another in efforts to professionalize and improve our own businesses and, in turn, be part of elevating the industry. After a very successful third year, I am struck by how vital it is to put yourself in the space where you are definitely not the smartest person in the room.
You know who will get the most from their investment in our summit? Those who stay connected to newfound associates well after the event’s end and continue great conversations started around tables and in elevators. If you want your business to grow, you must be willing to be uncomfortable, humble and vulnerable enough to acknowledge your weaknesses in the presence of people who inspire and drive you to be better.
Today we are going to take a little bit different path down this road.
You know it is important to network, to put yourself out there. Go to the happy hours, join professional associations, attend the conventions. What I am going to talk about today is how to find the people in those groups that you want to continue to brainstorm and problem-solve with and continue the conversation beyond the event.
Now, what I am about to say may sound mind-numbingly obvious; however, I would bet money the statement is still a necessary reminder for the majority of us: To meet people at these events, you actually have to make an effort to talk to people you do not already know.
It is important to approach these opportunities as not just a social happy hour to connect with those already in our circle, but a time to meet new people we may want in our circle. For some of us, extending ourselves is like breathing. For others, it is excruciating and we may have been told in the past we seem unapproachable.
I am going to share a few shifts in my own headspace that have allowed me to go from hiding in the corner with my drink, to walking out of a room with three scheduled follow-up coffee dates and several new contacts.
It’s not about me. When I go in primed to talk all about myself, I am setting up for failure. I need to approach the situation with the intention of learning the most I can about other people there. I want an encounter with me to be about them, not about me. People will remember how I made them feel more than anything else. I want them to feel like they are interesting and valuable. I find the acronym FORM to be extremely helpful when I meet new people. If I ask about these things, eyes light up and people lean in.
Family: People like to talk about those they love
Occupation: Don’t just ask, “What do you do?” You can get a more engaged response with “What does a day at work look like for you?” or “What is the most interesting part of your job?” “What project are you most excited about right now?” “What is the most obnoxious thing you are dealing with right now”?
Recreation: What do you like to do for fun?
Motivation: Of the above three topics, which one did the person light up the most while talking about? This is where you can return to. See if you can figure out what drives them.
Once you have engaged someone, be a good listener. Most people are not very good at this. Listening well is a skill. If you go into these conversations with an angle of working the conversation around to talking up yourself, you have already failed. Of course answer questions they pose in response, but don’t spend your energy formulating your next answer.
If you listen well to the person in front of you, you will soon become the person people seek out. Why? Because people long to be heard in this noisy world. Research has shown that there is a direct correlation between strong leadership and strong listening skills. Richard Branson, CEO of the Virgin Group, writes that the most effective leaders and entrepreneurs listen more than they speak:
“To be a good leader, you have to be a great listener. Brilliant ideas can spring from the most unlikely places, so you should always keep your ears open for some shrewd advice.”
He goes on to emphasize the importance of listening to everyone you encounter as closely as you would to your own board member or CEO.
Lean into others, put down distractions, ask follow-up questions, be genuine and don’t offer your take or solution to a situation unless asked. These things make a person feel heard.
So how do we transition from this to a professional coffee date? Ask for what you want and why. I know this sounds obvious, but it can make you feel pretty vulnerable the first few times you do it.
“That project you are working on is fascinating. I would love to learn more about how you implement it and I am sure you have had obstacles you had to overcome to get to where you are at with it. Do you have 30 minutes for coffee next week? Id love to buy you a cup and learn more about it.”
I challenge you to walk out of your next networking opportunity with a coffee date. Build your network. Your future self with thank you.
Now, go manage like a leader.