How to Network With Authenticity: Q&A With Executive Coach Abby Donnelly

Abby Donnelly, Executive Coach and Founder of The Leadership & Legacy Group, helps business owners work through strategic and succession plans, as well as assists leaders near retirement prepare for the next chapter in their lives. Through her own experience as a business owner, she has seen a lot of networking—both good and bad. After two years of researching what makes people like and loathe business networking, she authored, “Networking Works!“, a book that offers a 13-step process for building robust and strategic business relationships through transformational, rather than transactional, interactions. The book was turned into a training course and is offered through the Guilford Merchants Association.

In an interview with Donnelly, Office Evolution Greensboro asked about authentic networking and creating a genuine process for making meaningful connections.

OE: How do you define networking?

AD: My definition is ‘building relationships for mutual gain.’ Networking is not a transaction. Good networking should not be about how many hands I can shake [or] how many cards I can collect. It’s a deeper process of connecting to the person and creating a relationship for mutual value, and not a simple quid pro quo – i.e., I gave you a referral, now you give me one. I can think back fondly on so many amazing connections that I have brokered, which have turned out to be really beneficial for both parties—and that gives me great joy.

OE: What do you find is the biggest misunderstanding about networking?

AD: Networking has a negative connotation as transactional. Often when higher-level leaders, like CEOs and vice presidents, come through my class, they hear the word networking and automatically think that’s something they don’t need or want to do, because they have an image of someone pushing a business card in their hands. When I’m teaching a class, I give the example of how, when I’ve been to some networking event, there would invariably be somebody coming at me with their arm outreached ready to shake my hand vigorously and put their business card in my hand, demanding mine in return. That’s just icky. I want someone to come to me and genuinely want to listen and hear who I am and what I do and vice versa, have a transformational conversation where we get to know each other in a business context.

OE: Getting up the energy to go to a “networking event” can be very hard for some people. How should entrepreneurs approach going to an event or joining a group to build their network?

AD: For going to an event, my best recommendation is to set a really clear goal. An example of a goal might be to reconnecting with three people you already know. Another example might be to meet two qualified people who are in your target market. It’s not that you are going to have a conversation about doing business with them, because that’s not the place for it, but they are two people that, if the opportunity presented itself, you’d love to do business with them.

For joining organizations, I think it’s important to be very strategic about the groups you’re targeting for joining. Make sure they either attract people in your target market, or they attract people who know your target market so they would be possible referral sources for you. Then, it’s about figuring out how to position yourself, over time, to get into a leadership role where you can influence and be visible and where you can builds relationships in a direct way.

OE: What are some things people can do to network with authenticity?

AD: In advance of an event or a one-on-one networking meeting, think about three to five questions you want to discuss, and make sure they are things you are interested in. Don’t try to trick someone into doing business with you, but have a genuine interest in the person. You can also come up with an authentic way to break away from someone who you may have had a lovely conversation with, but you want to chat with other people. You can have a prepared exit, such as, “It was nice talking to you. I enjoyed our conversation. There are some other people I want to catch this evening as well.” Something, that again, is authentic to you. If you know many people in the room, you might ask the person if there is anyone there that person would like to meet and, if you know those people, offer to introduce them. Give them a warm and thorough introduction, so that both parties feel invested in speaking with one another, and then you can bow out gracefully to talk with someone else.

OE: How do you think personality types, like introverts and extroverts, fit into all of this?

The biggest difference between introverts and extroverts is where they get their energy. An extrovert will come home from an evening and have more energy. An introvert will come home from an evening and need some alone time because they are tired from all of the interaction. Knowing that about yourself and putting some boundaries on how long you force yourself into an environment that wears you out is an important thing.

It’s also helpful to be able to assess someone else’s personality type. If I can assess pretty quickly that someone is an introvert or an extrovert or very driven and wants to be in charge, I will adapt how I engage in a conversation so that we can both benefit from the interaction.

A great example of when I didn’t do that very well was when I went to an event and came across a woman I hadn’t seen in a while. I didn’t think to myself that she was an introvert and maybe even a little bit shy, so when I went up to her, I said, very exuberantly, “Hey! How are you doing?” I was excited to see her and ended up unintentionally firing a bunch of questions at her. At about the fifth question, she was very flustered, and she looked at me and said, “Abby, please stop! Please stop with all the questions!” At that moment, I realized, I had not read who she was and adjusted my exuberance appropriately. It was a good lesson, and I’ve been attuned to it ever since.

Many thanks to Abby Donnelly for offering her insight into strategic networking! It’s great to know networking doesn’t have to be a burden but can add value to entrepreneurs with goal setting, preparation and focusing on building quality relationships. For more information about The Leadership & Legacy Group, visit them online.