Build Genuine Connections to Grow Your Network and Develop Business

By Fiammetta S. Piazza

March 2021

On February 17, 2021, the Business Development Committee of the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA) hosted “Networking in a Pandemic: Business Development in the COVID-19 Era.”

Elaine Chang and Robyn Bacon, Co-Chairs of WLALA’s Business Development Committee introduced the event and panelists. Ms. Chang noted that despite this time of change and disruption, the remote environment has also allowed for unique opportunities in networking and business development, including the opportunity to hear from a group of individuals so geographically distant as the panelists.     

The three speakers included Gray Mateo-Harris, equity partner at Fox Rothschild LLP and regional practice leader for the firm’s labor and employment department; Karen Wickre, Silicon Valley connecter, author, and senior advisor at Brunswick Group; and Deb Feder, business development coach and strategist at Feder Development LLC.  Gleam Davis, corporate counsel at AT&T and Santa Monica City councilmember, moderated the program.

Best Practices to Maintain and Develop Business Connections in the Remote Work Era

Ms. Davis kicked off an honest and lively conversation, which covered a wide range of topics, including how to grow a network and keep in touch with connections, LinkedIn and other social media platforms, overcoming the fear of rejection to become an effective networker, and ways to self-assess progress.

Ms. Davis asked the panelists to share their preferred methods to keep in touch with their network and whether their business increased during the pandemic.

Ms. Wickre has been working from home for the last four years and her business model is grounded on her ability to connect.  Ms. Wickre explained she is disciplined about reaching out and contacting those in her network she has not talked to in a while, and the pandemic has given everyone one more reason to do so.  She acknowledged that many have virtual meeting fatigue and a simple phone call can do the trick as well.  While Ms. Wickre misses meeting over coffee or lunch, she has always been active on social media and made remote connections.  Therefore, the pandemic did not cause a dramatic shift in her approach, and lead to increased opportunities.

Ms. Feder, a former corporate lawyer whose expertise is helping attorneys create a strategic plan to grow their business connections, explained that even though in-person conferences and events have been cancelled, those are not typically the best strategies for building business and staying in touch.  The pandemic prompted Ms. Feder to adapt her business model to the new reality.  Prior to March 2020, the Ms. Feder’s business came primarily from referrals, but this shifted to LinkedIn as her engagement and conversations on LinkedIn grew over the last year. This has been true for both herself and her clients.

Ms. Mateo-Harris, a labor and employment lawyer, joined her current law firm during the pandemic.  Like other working mothers, she has had to share the working space at home with her husband and help her children with remote schooling.  She believes that the ability to meet over virtual coffee, drinks, and meals has increased her ability and opportunities to connect with people.  She credits this as a big reason why her book of business has expanded during the pandemic. 

Keeping Track of and in Touch with Connections

Ms. Feder advised to “keep it simple” to keep track of your network and dedicate fifteen minutes each day to reach out to connections.  She suggested identifying three individuals from an old job one has lost contact with and reach out with a quick email.  She reminded the audience that not everything has to end with a Zoom coffee or video chat.  Ms. Feder uses an embedded customer relationship management (CRM) software to organize her contacts and she intentionally reaches out to those she has not spoken to in the current month.  Above all, she advised being open to new connections and having new conversations.

Ms. Wickre agreed with Ms. Feder, noting that keeping in touch is the art of networking and not whose hand you shake at an event. Intermittent, casual, no-agenda check-ins can help maintain contacts. Connecting people in her network with others who may benefit from the introduction is also a key part of her approach.  Ms. Wickre noted that keeping a CRM contact list is not a requirement, and curating a simple spreadsheet or list with 15-20 people of friends and former colleagues can be sufficient.  Even a simple note to someone because you haven’t spoken in six months or so can be a good reason to check in.

Ms. Davis asked Ms. Mateo-Harris how she maintains former contacts while building new contacts at her new law firm. Ms. Mateo-Harris started off by recognizing that many people may be unable to change jobs during the pandemic, or have lost business due to the pandemic. Being cognizant of the circumstances, she actively tries to connect people and help them in their transition.  While this is fundamentally a good thing to do for people you like, so many people don’t have or make the time and these acts are appreciated. Ms. Mateo-Harris shared that at least three of her new clients are people she connected to a specific opening or to someone who could make an introduction.

In talking about ways to foster and grow her network, Ms. Mateo-Harris indicated that when she connects with new people, regardless of the context, she makes sure to share the type of work she does so that they know what she can do to help and her firm capabilities.  She does this in a soft way, without making it sound like a sales pitch. By using her time to help people she likes, it is authentic and never feels like a chore.  She believes that genuine connections generate business, so during the pandemic she has focused on meeting and staying in touch with those she cares about, which has translated into business growth.  She noted that while you could get lucky trying to chat up a room full of people at a large event, she found it a far better use of her time to focus her efforts.

The panelists agreed in the power of honest and genuine connections and encouraged investing in intermitted touchpoints with no specific agendas, especially with individuals with shared interests and passions.  The panelists also agreed that a way to build connections and strengthen your network is to connect others to opportunities or people that may be a good fit.

How to Become Better at Networking

Ms. Davis asked the panelists how to become better at networking now and in the post-pandemic world. 

Ms. Feder advised people to learn about the people they meet by engaging in curious conversations.  Ms. Feder also encouraged everyone to learn more about the way they practice and their personal preferences, and staying true to those preferences post-pandemic.  She encouraged everyone to be nimble and flexible, but honest about what is feasible and what works best for themselves.  To Ms. Feder, this is an excellent time to self-reflect on those preferences.

Ms. Wickre reminded everyone that there is no need to stay connected with everyone you know and curating your list.  For example, if someone reaches out in a merely transactional way, there is no need or requirement to follow through with that connection. But she is happy to help or make a connection with someone she likes, a contact suggested, or has a good feeling about.

Ms. Davis asked Ms. Mateo-Harris if she foresees implementing changes to her networking approach after going back to “normal.”

Ms. Mateo-Harris said she could not see going back to traveling for so many in-person meetings. She emphasized the importance of prioritization since the pandemic and is thankful for opportunities to connect virtually. She viewed her and many others’ pre-pandemic business development activities as punishing themselves, their families, and their bodies trying to squeeze in so many meals and taking time away from family to travel to meetings.  Ms. Mateo-Harris noted that while she looks forward to going back to the gym and other activities, she will continue to keep in touch virtually with people and cut back on her travel and in-person meetings.  She finds that virtual meetings can also be a glimpse into someone’s real life and helps make real connections.  She does looks forward to resuming her pre-pandemic play dates for her children with other mothers.  Since many of these mothers are in-house lawyers with long commutes, attending events and dinners take away from their family and could trigger “mommy guilt.”  She found it is much easier to reach out to those connections to arrange a play date for their children at a park rather than something after work.

LinkedIn and other Social Media Platforms 

Ms. Feder recognized that everyone has different methods that can work for their specific practice. She admitted she used to think of LinkedIn as a place to put your resume and scope someone out if they called you.  But she was dared to post on LinkedIn and within two days a firm called to hire her because they saw her post on LinkedIn.  Since then, she has become very active on the platform, posts regularly on it, and has taken the approach of being open to new connections. Her approach with clients is helping them reach out to others in a way that is not a cold call and that instead creates a real connection, which has opened many doors for her and her clients.  To achieve this, she supports sharing real content that is engaging and makes you human, that tells others about you and your work.  Ms. Feder noted that she differs from the other panelists by not including notes with connection requests and accepting such connection requests in turn.  She stated that accepting cold requests opened a lot of doors for her, including joining the LinkedIn group that resulted in the book she contributed to during the pandemic.

Ms. Mateo-Harris uses LinkedIn extensively “like a phone” to reach out to those she does not have contact information for and to check in on contacts, such as congratulating them on career moves or suggesting connections.  She also uses the feature to search for nearby contacts when she is at a conference as a tool to reconnect with people in your network.  She does not consider herself a frequent poster but she does share posts on topics that are important to her, and finds it is important to be willing to be vulnerable and open.  When Ms. Mateo-Harris moved to her current firm, she shared her life story in a raw and honest way on LinkedIn.  She had over ten thousand views of her post, many people (including strangers) reached out to her, and she even got a new client from that post. 

Ms. Davis admitted that she only recently joined LinkedIn because her company encouraged her to do so and is not sure how to respond to all of the sales pitch messages.  She asked Ms. Wickre how she uses LinkedIn and how to respond to those types of messages.

Ms. Wickre admitted she also had LinkedIn account for years before engaging more with the platform.  As a connector, LinkedIn is an easy way to stay in touch and acts as a de facto directory for professionals.  So many people search LinkedIn for speakers, expertise, and board members that having an account is almost a requirement.  She advises clients to do quarterly check-ins of their LinkedIn profile and at minimum, make sure it paints a good picture of “who you are and what you are doing.”  Because she is a connecter, Ms. Wickre will accept many requests but advises against using the canned prompts and to give context for why you want to connect. This can be as simple as mentioning shared connections or liking something she posted.  Rather than reject requests she is unsure of outright, she leaves them to reconsider later.

Ms. Davis then asked the panelists their advice on what to do about the plethora of opportunities to connect on so many social media platforms and the buzz around Clubhouse. 

Ms. Wickre assured the audience that there is no need to join every platform and advised focusing on the platform which comes more naturally and where you have the most connections.  As a Silicon Valley connecter, Ms. Wickre regularly communicates with contacts through Twitter direct messages, Facebook Messenger, Slack, LinkedIn InMail, and more.  She is an active Twitter user and has made valued friends and connections through the platform.  She likes Clubhouse and enjoys seeing who among her contacts is using it, but reminded the audience that the social media platforms are just touch points to connect.  But there is no need to spend time on all services.  She feels that LinkedIn is the bare minimum for professionals, and usage of other platforms depend on where you want to reach people you like and wish to contact. 

Ms. Feder shared that she initially resisted, then joined Clubhouse after being asked to join a business development panel where everyone was on Clubhouse.  Ms. Feder and Ms. Wickre agreed that the Clubhouse is fun but can be overwhelming with conversations at all hours given the international users.  They both found smaller “rooms” on the platform create better opportunities for connections and are easier to interact with the speakers.  Ms. Feder reminded the audience that, with any platform, if one intends to use it for business development one must be cognizant of their time and energy allocated to it. If they are spending all their time on platforms, then they are just avoiding their work.  

Ms. Davis noted the importance of time management for working moms and asked Ms. Mateo-Harris how to draw boundaries on social media and manage time efficiently.

Ms. Mateo-Harris acknowledged that no specific formula works for everyone and figuring out what is the right amount of time to spend on business development or social media for yourself is key.  As a junior attorney, she thought work-life balance was about separating the two, but now her approach is of work-life integration, enabling her to do what she enjoys and focus on what is most important to her.  For example, she is active with groups connected to her children’s school and Facebook groups for moms, and has met clients this way.  She encouraged the audience to learn what is a good use of their time and then be intentional about it.  While she enjoys scrolling through TikTok, she recognizes it is not for productivity.  Ms. Mateo-Harris usually starts her mornings by checking LinkedIn for important updates or messages and checks her list of people to reach out to before the demands of the day take over.  Others may prefer allocating time in the evening or during the weekend but that is her family time.

The panelists all agreed that LinkedIn is essential for professionals and that users should make sure their profiles reflect an accurate and current image of themselves.  Those who engage more with LinkedIn were advised to share genuine and honest content on the platform to further reveal their interests and passions.  The panelists also agreed that any additional platform for networking should reflect their curiosity or interest in connecting with those users, and being intentional where they spend their time and energy.

Overcoming Fear of Rejection and Taking Action

Ms. Davis switched gears to ask the panelists how to overcome fears of being rejected or ignored virtually or in-person, and asked for recommendations on action plans. 

Ms. Wickre acknowledged that the approach could differ based on your goals. She suggested having a specific plan for specific goals like looking for a new job or a graduate program. She compared this to a scavenger hunt where each encounter is a step forward and closer to the final connection or introduction.  She differentiates this from broadly looking for more connections, particularly after having been at the same position for a long time.  She reminded the audience that, because of the many social channels, we are used to the idea of being loosely connected to many people we may not have interacted with for a long time. But the assumption is that you could reach out at some point because you previously had shared experiences.  Given this, Ms. Wickre encouraged connecting with current co-workers because, as one moves on to different positions, they will become part of our network.

Ms. Mateo-Harris shared that to stay organized, she has a written business development plan that includes keeping in touch with people at different frequencies.  She noted that everyone on the list is someone she likes, and she removes people if she has a bad experience. She gives herself the flexibility to account for life sometimes getting in the way and simply restarts where she left off.  She reminded the audience that it’s ok not to be perfect at everything you do and to make sure that your key priorities in life are taken care of when we aren’t able to get to the lower priorities on our to-do list.

Ms. Feder compared overcoming a fear of rejection when making new connections to shopping for a new home – don’t fall in love until you have the keys in your hand.  She advised approaching networking with an open view and not being tied to a single path, person, or outcome.  She encouraged building momentum, which helped her expand her business at the outset of the pandemic, because that the first step is always the harder.  Ms. Feder explained that, in her experience, attorneys are particularly good at going either 100 miles per hour or “sloth-mode” but less in between.  Being conscious of this, she suggested jump-starting the process by dedicating just half an hour each day to networking to avoid feeling like it is a chore.

Additional Networking Opportunities – Professional Groups and Community Organizations

Ms. Davis transitioned the conversation to networking and business development opportunities outside of social media platforms, including both professional and non-professional groups.

Ms. Mateo-Harris encouraged engaging in personally fulfilling activities because genuine connections will come naturally when you do what you love. For example, pre-pandemic she enjoyed “adult play dates” like spa days, foodie dinners, and spin class. However, she also volunteered her time to organizations she cared about even though they weren’t likely to generate business. For example, she joined the board of a non-profit for rape victims advocacy because it spoke to her heart.  She knew the people on the board were unlikely to become potential clients but she met many other people equally passionate about the subject and invited clients to their galas who she knew would be interested.  Therefore, she could still merge her professional life with this passion.  Ms. Mateo-Harris is also Vice Chair of the National Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Section, a group which is predominantly attorneys of color who are interested in diversity and inclusion and practice labor and employment. She believes that the mentorships, friendships, and networking from this group of people who have had similar experiences and shared interests led her to contribute more than she would have to a random group with the American Bar Association. In general, the relationships one makes will be more meaningful and have more potential when you are around individuals with shared passions. 

Ms. Feder agreed and advised finding organizations and people that speak to one’s passions.  Time is a limited commodity and finding those groups will enable us to grow and build real connections.  She has personally found that formal networking groups seem too focused on perfecting your sales pitch and suggested finding a community of people that share the same values or interests as the most natural way to expand a network.  She spent many years volunteering with the Junior League. For her, it was life-changing joining a LinkedIn community of women attorneys all interested in supporting each other.

Self-Assessment of Your Plan and Takeaways

When asked how one can self-assess if “they are doing it right,” Ms. Wickre shared that with time she now feels that having someone to turn to and trust for different aspects of life, what she calls a “brain trust,” has been her personal assessment.  Ms. Wickre explained that it is not a numbers game but ensuring she has an extended network of resources, directly or indirectly through the people we trust, to tackle that arise.  To Ms. Wickre, the feeling of being “rich in people” she has known for a long time and trusts is invaluable to her.  Her measure for self-assessment includes being able to reach out to those she may have not been in contact for years but can reconnect with, because she has a web of contacts she trusts and can turn to for any emergency or situation.

Ms. Davis then invited the panelists to share the takeaway they each would like the audience to remember.

Ms. Feder reminded people to have fun with the process.  She advised that networking is not as hard as many think and that taking it one step at a time makes connecting easy and achievable.  Ms. Feder invited everyone to connect with her on LinkedIn as a first step!

Ms. Wickre said that connecting with people you like, regardless of the short-term transactional value, should be the driving force behind building connections.  She also stressed the importance of being curious because this has led her to meet fascinating people she would not have otherwise met.

Ms. Mateo-Harris encouraged everyone to embrace their authentic self as women and their identity such as if they are a person of color. She recognized that women have long tried to fit in but that hasn’t always worked, and should instead step into and be their authentic self and present in everything they do, including at work and with networking.  She encouraged finding what drives you and own it – this will lead to genuine connections that are more effective.

Q&A Session and Closing

During the Q&A, there were questions regarding responding to sales pitches, other networking platforms, and recommended CRM platforms.

Ms. Wickre stated that she tends to ignore messages where the writer clearly has not taken the time to read her profile and has no idea what she does.  But she may respond if there is something that sparks her interest. 

Ms. Mateo-Harris considers if the sales pitches is from someone in a network with mutual connections.  She may also refer the service to others if she finds the message genuine but ignores inappropriate pitches.  Ms. Mateo-Harris explained that being in private practice she mainly gets pitches from legal vendor services, and she will thank them and let them know she has made a note of their services.

Ms. Feder shared her experience of receiving a well-tailored and personalized message for a service a person could tell she needed.  She reminded the audience that authentic and thoughtful messages lead to authentic conversations that lead to true connections.

Ms. Feder stated that she has a CRM service integrated into her platform, but she also suggests using a simple spreadsheet. Some attorneys use NEXL or other services built into law firm software.

Overall, the event was a success in bringing together experienced connectors with a diverse set of experiences sharing their insight into growing their network and their business during the pandemic.

We hope that everyone can join us for our follow-on event to Networking in a Pandemic on March 30, 2021. In honor of Women’s History Month, WLALA is co-hosting a virtual Sister Bar Networking Night with Asian Pacific American Women Lawyers Alliance, Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, and Latina Lawyers Bar Association.

Thank you again to our sponsors Nathan Associates and Polsinelli LLP.