Alex Chepovetsky is chief digital officer of Havas Canada.
As a quiet teenager who spoke only a few words of English, moving from Ukraine (known at the time as the Soviet Union) to Saskatchewan didn't exactly help build my interpersonal skills.
It was the late 1970s, and while Western culture was new to me, I fell in love with the music immediately. Thanks to the Ramones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and the Sex Pistols, my English steadily improved, and I eventually worked up enough nerve to get a job as a bartender at the BBop Cafe in Regina.
One might think that I was there to serve drinks, but conversations with people became 90 per cent of what I did. It was not uncommon for waitresses to come to me complaining that I was stealing their tips because customers chose to come directly to the bar. Not only did these conversations help me get phone numbers and party invites, they are also how I ended up moving to Toronto (but that's a story for another time). I may not have known it, but this was also my first foray into networking. It's something I would continue to do every day for the next 25 years.
What I've learned is that networking is a muscle, and you do get better at it over time. If you had coffee with me in the 1990s and one today, you'd be talking to a completely different person (and that has nothing to do with the length of my hair or outfit choice).
Here's what changed:
You have to actually care
If you don't have a genuine interest in the person that you're meeting, the relationship won't last beyond the last sip of coffee. The key is to find common ground and regardless of age, seniority or background, you have something in common with everyone. Spend time to learn about their children, hobbies, last vacation or even their favourite restaurant. Ask questions. Naturally, if you ask about others, they'll want to learn about you, too. And while learning about others is caring, actually caring means you'll remember these details. One time, I had a deep conversation about someone's two children. The next time I ran into them, I asked them if they had children. Don't do that.
No one's there for the coffee
Asking for a coffee is non-threatening. And honestly, who says no to a free coffee or tea, hot chocolate or pumpkin-spiced latte? Yet, in my experience, people know that there's a reason behind the coffee and if they've agreed to meet, they've agreed to hear you out.
That doesn't mean that I need to ask them for what I need right away. Before every meeting I make sure that I have an opener, usually something personal, to help break the ice. After, I let the conversation go where it may. I have found many of my 15-minute coffees about business have turned into 90-minute chats about life. And sometimes those chats become more valuable than what I was looking for in the first place. If I don't have time to get my original point across because we get lost on tangents, I will add it into my follow-up e-mail by trying to set up another meeting.
Also, I have an "ask me anything" policy. While no one has taken me up on it yet by asking a truly out there question, it does set the tone for an open and candid conversation without fear of rejection.
That being said, you likely won't get what you're looking for
Networking isn't meeting someone once – it's a process. It's over a series of many touch points and meaningful conversations that you grow your network. So if you're looking for an introduction, a new client or a job, remember that it likely won't happen following that first meeting. Send a follow-up thank you note referencing something you chatted about, send them a relevant article or even invite them to an upcoming event. The point is, make an effort to stay connected. People are busy, so the onus is on you to be remembered.
Looking back, I never thought that the lessons I learned as a bartender at BBop would have been as important to my career as those I learned in the classroom. When it comes to networking, not much can beat human interaction.
Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.