The four keys to developing Personal Connections

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I have written before about the value of your network and connections in gaining a board appointment. When it comes to board appointments, it is not what you know but who you know that counts – 65% of people are appointed this way. So it stands to reason that if you want a board appointment, you need to get connected. But how do you develop connections and not just contacts? There are four things you need to do before you start the journey.

Key 1 – Check your Motivation

Individuals who develop effective personal connections are persistent. Persistence comes through having a strong motivation. Motivated people see opportunities to develop these connections everywhere; at dinner parties, on planes, in the office, at your children’s sporting events, etc.

However, to do this effectively, you must be clear about your motivation for doing so. There are two kinds of motivation – one good and one bad.

  • Towards (positive) motivation: Successful NEDs are driven by a desire to help; not to gain a board appointment. This has positive connotations and as such, if genuinely believed, means that the connections made are both legitimate and authentic. This results in better interactions and personal connections being made, as opposed to networks. In the end, these kinds of relationships reap positive results – whether it be introductions or NED opportunities.
  • Away (negative) motivation: This type of motivation for doing something is driven by the desire to not feel a negative consequence. For example, you might choose not to speed because you don’t want a speeding ticket; you only want to meet new people because you want them to help you get a board appointment; or you might want a NED role because you have nothing else to do, simply want to get paid or you want more time on the golf course. You get the picture – negative motivations are self-serving and unattractive.

The seemingly small difference in motivation here is important because it plays out in how you interact with those you meet. Furthermore, the result of this attitude is often embodied in needy language: “I really want a board position” or “no one will give me an opportunity”. This sort of language is debilitating for both the user and listener and will have a negative impact on your effectiveness in developing personal connections.

In addition to being appropriately motivated, being authentic is essential when developing personal connections and will help you enjoy the process of meeting people more.

Key 2 – Be Authentic

Too many aspiring NEDs I speak to are inauthentic in their approach. They misrepresent their experience or pretend to offer more than they really do. Conversations based on this bravado often go nowhere and end up in both parties being frustrated. If you are an aspiring NED, then play to that strength. You must first know what it is you offer a board and what kind of board would value your skills. Once you do, then asking others with more board experience than you do for their advice is an easy ‘in’. Simply something like “I want to develop a board career. I haven’t got any experience but I am passionate about the (industry) and want to help. What should I do first?” is a really authentic approach.

Conversely, if you already have board experience, then connecting with other NEDs is easy to do. Opening with “I am a Non-Executive of (company). I noted you were in a similar field, so I wanted to introduce myself” is an easy and authentic approach you can make to literally thousands of people.

Key 3 – Be Passionate

One of the five criteria that a Chair looks for in successful board candidates is passion. This happens because the Chair is passionate about one, or all of, three things: their contribution to their board, what the organisation does or what the organisation is. Either way, they are passionate and sharing this passion with them will make your connection with them stronger – making you a better candidate.

But what exactly should you be passionate about? In truth, it doesn’t really matter. I have seen many a hardened Chair softened by an inexperienced but passionate board member. Whether it is the passion you have for board work, the industry you are in, what you do outside of work or what you can contribute, all can be equally appealing to a listener. The key lies in knowing what it is you love doing and how to explain it.

Key 4 – Your Mantra

“How can I help? How can I help? How can I help?” This phrase needs to be ringing in your ears when you are developing personal connections. That means constantly thinking whether the people you know, what you read, the tidbits of industry knowledge you come across or your skills or experience might be useful to those you meet.

This “how can I help”-mantra is incredibly powerful and I find that most successful NEDs take this tact. Asking questions is key. Once you know what their challenges are, then begin to leverage this new knowledge. Specifically, asking how you can help, demonstrates an inquisitiveness (a powerful trait for a NED to have) and also a genuine desire to contribute (again, a quality that good NEDs have). Beyond this it also allows you to endear yourself to those you meet and provides an excuse to stay in contact and generate new referrals – all critical elements that will help you develop board opportunities.

I often find that the best way I can help is by introducing them to others who know more about a subject than I do, or someone who works in their industry but whom they don’t know. Taking this approach is the right thing to do and also presents a great excuse to keep in touch and to endear yourself to a powerful contact, building the right connections.

A word of warning

Wanting to help and helping are two very different things.

Studies have shown ‘successful’ leaders are not necessarily the most outgoing, gregarious, smartest or the ones with the strongest interpersonal skills. Instead, most successful leaders do one thing; they follow through. If they say they will do something, they do it. Having a “how can I help”-mantra is all well and good but that means that you must follow through on the promises you make. For example, if you promised an introduction or to email through an article, make sure you do so.

Equally, the follow-up is as important as the follow-through. If you made an introduction, then wait a week or two and follow it up. Ask both parties, individually, how they found the meeting and whether you can help any further. If it was an article you sent through, find out how it was received. You might be surprised what changes in a week.

Developing personal connections is not something everyone enjoys doing. In the end, just getting out there and meeting or connecting with new people will feel more comfortable if you do it regularly. Get in the habit of introducing yourself to others and offering to help in the knowledge that it can only get easier.

About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Direction – Australia’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world

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