I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in my early 20s and my boss expected me to network with senior people working for potential clients. These people were fifteen years older than me.
How was I supposed to network with someone in a completely different age group? My kids weren’t entering into college… I had no kids. I had only recently graduated college myself and didn’t even have a girlfriend.
I knew nothing about designing or building pharmaceutical facilities. I had no war stories. I knew none of the players.
I had nothing in common with these people. So, how was I supposed to develop a relationship? How was I supposed to get them to like me and, as a result, give my firm work? I’d rather shove hot pokers into my eyes than try to weasel my way into a conversation with some old geezer I couldn’t relate to.
Yes, that’s what I thought. And I was completely wrong. But what I was wrong about might surprise you. If you struggle with the idea of networking with people much older or younger than you…the same thing is probably blocking your success.
You see, within a few weeks, I would meet the person who I hold responsible for my job, my wife, and teaching me an unforgettable lesson about networking. And he was 25 years older than me.
Thrown To The Wolves
I was a few weeks into my job as a marketing coordinator for a mechanical/electrical/plumbing design firm. My boss, the Senior Vice President, drove me to an International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineers event in Lawrenceville, NJ.
“Matt, I’m not driving you back to the office until you have someone’s business card in your hand,” he announced.
Thanks a lot, jerk…I thought.
I looked around and it might as well have been an AARP meeting or a casting call for Grumpy Old Men 3. But I needed a ride back to the office and you’ve got to keep the boss happy. So, I wandered the room looking for the friendliest face I could.
I finally found someone who looked reasonably friendly. I swallowed my pride. I went up and awkwardly asked for his business card. He introduced himself and gave me his card. His name was John. But more importantly, I bolted back to my boss and got my ride home that night.
Over the next few years, I attended more networking events. And John was always a comfortable person to go up to because I had already met him.
The Surprising Power Of Networking (Even When You Stink At It)
Flash forward three years later. I was jobless, trying to figure out what to do with my life, and living in a house with a few friends.
One morning, I was sitting in my Twinkie pajamas (yes, Twinkie snack cakes), watching TV. Suddenly, the phone on the wall rang.
“Hi, This is Tracy from Trauner Consulting. We would like you to come in to interview.”
You have to understand. I had not sent this woman my resume. I had not applied for a single job. So, I had no idea why she was calling me.
To make a long story short, it was John who was now working at Trauner Consulting and convinced Tracy to hire me (despite her reservations). And for years after that, John and I shared an office and worked side-by-side.
Dapper John And The One Who Didn’t Get Away
They used to call John, “Dapper John.” He was a handsome, well-dressed man in his 50s. He was a “ladies man.”
So when I had arranged a first date with a girl a little out of my league, I decided to ask John for some advice.
“Well, Matt,” he said. “I’ve got a place. But here’s the thing. You better really like this girl. Because if you take her to this place, you’ll never get rid of her.”
Yeah, maybe that’s the case for John. But we’re talking about me here. If there was any guy who could make a girl change her number, dye her hair, and move to a different state after a first date…it was me.
When someone hands you the golden ticket, you’ve got to take it. Maybe, with the help of John’s special spot, I could get a kiss on the cheek from this girl before she realized what a terrible time I am.
I’ve now been married to that girl for nine years! John did it again.
How To Network With People Who Are Different Than You.
Think about it for a second. How much has John helped me?
If John called me up today and said,”Matt, I need one of your kidneys,” how could I refuse? I’d just have to say yes…here’s my kidney. That’s the power of helping people. That’s the power of reciprocation.
And I help John whenever I can. Most recently, I helped him pick out the right smartphone. And even though he’s basically retired, we meet up for lunch every few months.
John and I never had lots in common. But we built a reciprocal relationship based on helping each other.
The Biggest Networking Misconception
The next time you walk into a networking event, don’t think about how you’ll talk about commonalities with people and “build relationships.” Don’t think about how you’ll position your firm so they know yours is the firm to hire. Forget that.
Despite what you may have heard, you are not there to turn these people into your buddies or sell them on your amazing firm. You are there to uncover ways you can help them.
That’s the point of talking with people at networking events: simply to uncover how you might help them.
Not how your firm can provide them services. How YOU can help THEM.
Be curious. Ask questions. Dig deep. Uncover some way you might be able to help them.
It doesn’t have to be a big favor. It doesn’t have to be work related. But it has to be something.
Helping transcends all age differences. It transcends race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and political orientation. A six-year-old boy could help Caitlyn Jenner across the street and she/he would not forget that. An elderly woman could stop a protester from throwing a tomato at Donald Trump, and he would remember that. A 60-year-old man could help a 28-year-old land a job. And I will never forget that.
If you help enough people get what they want, you’ll get everything you’ve ever wanted.
That’s the true secret of successful networking.
Now it’s your turn, what’s the hardest part of networking with older people. Leave a comment below.