How to Grow Your Network Without Really Trying
A reporter is only as good as her sources. As a self-employed journalist for 23 years, I was also only as good as my clients. Therefore, much of my career has been devoted to expanding my network.
Though many people think of networking as hard work, I’ve never seen it as a chore. Discovering and getting to know new people is one of the greatest pleasures of my work. It’s also so ingrained in what I do that when Kai Falkenberg, Editorial Counsel at FORBES, asked me to give a boot camp lecture to interns and reporters about how to expand their networks, I had to think hard about what precisely I do.
The items listed below describe the way I approach my job. But with minor tweaks they could be replicated in many other professions. Building a network and finding stories are so closely intertwined for me that I cannot separate them. Here are the steps that have been most instrumental.
1. Say “yes” to boring assignments. I’ve had various, sometimes overlapping, beats over the years: legal matters for small business owners; alternative dispute resolution; and workplace issues. (Freelancing for various publications at the same time, I simultaneously covered the subject from both the employee and the employer perspective.) I was just finishing my book, Small Business Legal Smarts (Bloomberg Press, 1998), when an editor who I had worked with extensively on the small business beat called to say that Bloomberg had retained him as a consultant to help start two new magazines. He was looking for a freelancer to write about estate planning. Yawn!
I declined because I thought it was too boring. (“I think I’ll stick to my knitting,” I said.) Three months later he called me back with the same offer. This time he was a little more pushy:
“You’re a quick study,” he said. “I thought you might like to learn something new.”
During the three-month interlude my life had totally changed. By then I had a new baby, and my father was suddenly dying of cancer. Estate planning, which three months earlier seemed boring and irrelevant, was suddenly the center of my universe. So this time I said “yes” to the editor. Turns out he did me a huge career favor.
Over the course of the past 15 years I have written more than 100 articles on a wide range of wealth management subjects, including: saving for college, planning for retirement, income- and estate-tax strategies and philanthropy. I also wrote the consumer-oriented book, Estate Planning Smarts. (See my post, “How My Book Became A (Self-Published) Best Seller.”) Who knew?
2. Say “yes” to non-prestigious publications (or companies). I’ve freelanced for a lot of startups. Bloomberg was one of them. At the time I started freelancing for the magazines I mentioned–Bloomberg Personal Finance andBloomberg Wealth Manager (neither is part of Bloomberg today)–few people outside the financial community had heard ofMichael Bloomberg. In fact, one prominent estate planning lawyer made a game of annoying me when I used to call to interview him, by referring to the company as Blumberg– a business that produces legal forms.
This lawyer is still my source, and I’ve been tempted to remind him of these conversations, now that Bloomberg’s company is a major player in the media business, and he is the mayor of New York City. But I haven’t said anything. He and many other sources were generous with their time as I learned a difficult beat and I am very grateful for that.
3. Get out of your comfort zone. Shortly after I switched careers, from law to journalism (see my post, “Changing Careers May Have Saved My Life“), a lawyer who I used to work with called and said, “My father-in-law, who’s the CEO of an ad agency, is looking for someone to ghostwrite the second edition of his book. Would you do me a favor and talk to him?”
I did her the favor, but I really didn’t want the gig. So when I met with her father-in-law, Hank Seiden, instead of selling my skills as an editor and writer, I said, “I really don’t know anything about advertising.”
“You don’t have to–because I do,” Hank replied. Surprisingly, I still got the gig, writing the second edition of Advertising Pure and Simple.
Hank, who died in 2008, called me “kiddo,” but he called everybody that. He was older and wiser and he taught me a lot of things – about advertising and about life. And this assignment, more than any other, changed the course of my life.
As it happens I was romantically unattached, after a lengthy relationship, when I started working with Hank. And his secretary, in the course of conversation, found that out. So when a new guy transferred to the New York office from Pittsburgh, she very diplomatically arranged a blind date. And I’ve been married to that guy for 20 years. (See my post, “Seven Things I’ve Learned From 20 Years Of Marriage.”)
4. Do your homework. I never try and fake it– I always admit what I don’t know. When arranging to interview a source about a complicated subject, I always ask, “Is there anything I should read as homework before we talk?” And I often get more than one source’s perspective about the same subject. After several years of covering estate planning, one source told me, “I know how you operate. You talk to enough people that finally someone explains things to you in a way that you understand.” I took it as a backhanded compliment.
5. Think broadly. In reporting articles, I don’t limit myself to the confines of the assignment. I keep sources talking. And at the end of each interview I always ask three questions:
“Is there anything I haven’t asked you, or anything you’d like to add?”
“Is there anything you thought we would talk about that we didn’t cover?”
“What else is going on?”
Colleagues at FORBES sometimes comment on the stack of reporters’ notebooks on my desk with Post-it notes sticking out of them. These are story ideas that have grown out of other stories I have reported.
One holdover from my freelance days is that I’m a reporter 24/7. That’s a bit of an occupational hazard, but it also means I can find a story almost anywhere. Recently, I was walking in the neighborhood when I overheard a woman on her cell phone saying in a loud, angry voice, “He micromanages me into the dirt!” Immediately I thought of a headline, “How To Manage A Micromanager.” Then I needed a story to go with it. So I asked a career counselor to write a guest post on the subject for my blog, as you can see here.
6. Don’t be a captive audience. This may sound inconsistent with everything I have said so far, but time is precious–you can’t do everything. Therefore, I routinely turn down invitations for desk-side interviews, lunches and coffee klatches. I prefer to find my own stories; I don’t want to be pitched the stories that PR people are pitching to everyone else. And I like to choose my own sources.
Getting out of the office is crucial to doing my job. I do that by going to all sorts of events where I can mingle. At an estate planning conference last January, I met Jochen Vogler, who recently wrote the guest post for my blog, “Most Foreign Banks Don’t Want U.S. Clients; How To Find One That Does.”
I also find sources by reading professional journals and prowling LinkedIn. I belong to many groups, reflecting my various areas of interest, and I watch the conversations for topics and knowledgeable participants. But here, too, I want to find them – I don’t want to be pitched.
When reporting stories, I also ask at the end of each interview, “Who else should I be talking with?” or “Who else do you respect in this field?” This is another way to expand my contacts. Good people know other good people.
A great example of that is my story, “Eight Ways To Make Collecting Pay Off.” I got the idea when David Seideman, editor-in-chief of Audubon magazine, invited me to a fundraiser. There I met Joseph Ellis, a retired Goldman Sachs partner who is on Audubon’s board of directors. In the course of conversation he mentioned that he had been collecting miniature wood bird carvings since 1995. While building his collection, Ellis realized there wasn’t a comprehensive book on such carvings, so he wrote one, Birds in Wood and Paint (University Press of New England, 2009). How intriguing!
Within a day of meeting Ellis I had gotten the go-ahead to do a story about collectibles, including Ellis, for the 2012 FORBES magazine Investment Guide. Then I looked for other interesting collectors. A minerals dealer (who I didn’t interview for the story) gave me the name of a spine surgeon who collects rocks. The story also featured a doctor who owns a Stradivarius. I got him from a violin dealer.
And I got to the violin dealer through Laura Harth Rodriguez, whose father was Sidney Harth, an acclaimed violinist and conductor, who died last year. Rodriguez recently used the IRA she inherited from him to buy a warehouse. I wrote about that in my FORBES magazine story, “How To Invest Your IRA In Real Estate, Gold And Alternative Assets.” I got to Rodriguez through her lawyer, Patrick J. Felix III, who I met at an estate planning conference.
It so happened that I interviewed Rodriguez for that story at the same time as I was reporting the story about collectibles. So at the end of the interview I asked her if she knew a high-end violin dealer. She referred me to Joseph Bein, whose Chicago firm, Bein & Fushi, is known for its world-class expertise in stringed instruments. When I asked him for the name of an interesting collector, he put me in touch with Los Angeles urologist William Sloan, who owns $12 million worth of violins.
7. Say “thank you.” When I went back to school to get a journalism degree (see my post, “The Case Against Law School“), one of my professors used to tell me, “You can’t subpoena your sources.” What he meant was you can’t force people to talk to you. So I don’t take their help for granted.
At the end of every interview I always say, “Thanks for talking with me. You’ve been very generous with your time.” When the article appears, I send the link if it’s online. If it’s in print and the source has been featured prominently, I also send a copy of the magazine with a hand-written note.
Saying “thank you” turns contacts into loyal sources. One of them is Wendy Goffe, a trusts and estates lawyer with Stoel Rives in Seattle who has not only talked with me for stories, but has also helped me find clients to interview. Recently, she has written many wonderful guest posts for my blog, including: “12 Estate Planning Questions That Might Make You Squirm,” “How To Quit Your Job Without Burning Your Bridges,” and “A Working Mom Defends the ‘Lululemon Stay-at-Home Mother.”
If someone has taken the time for an interview but not been quoted in the story, I also write to them: “Thanks for your help with this. I’m sorry your comments wound up on the cutting room floor. I hope you’ll indulge me the next time.” Most often they reply, “No worries.”
8. Do things outside of work that you enjoy. Following our passions can lead us to new people and new stories. For example, foreign travel is my passion. I come home from every trip with a slew of story ideas. Examples: “Road-Tested Summer Travel Apps,” “How To Visit Switzerland Without Breaking The Bank,” “How To Travel Anywhere With Nothing But A Carry-On Bag” and “ A Survival Guide To Amsterdam.”
If you follow these steps, you will not only have a very rich career, you will also have a very rich life. You will never be at a loss for work, contacts, or ideas. If you ever feel stuck, you can remind yourself that the world is full of infinite possibilities. There is always someone–or something–fresh and exciting just around the bend.
Retrieved from : Forbes