Before deciding what he wanted to be when he grew up, Troy Bird began networking everywhere, meeting people in fields he might be interested in, talking to them about their careers, and building a Rolodex of contacts for future reference.
"Being able to drop names really helps a lot," says Bird. "If you're looking for a foot in the door, being able to legitimately say that 'So-and-so said to give them a call' makes a big difference."
Today, Bird has not only chosen his field, but built a successful career as a partner at Comstock Mortgage in Sacramento. He still networks, however now he concentrates on two main avenues - a formal leads coalition and groups with other interests, such as alumni associations, nonprofits and past clients.
Taking the Lead
Bird has been a member of the business leads organization LeTip International for more than a decade. At weekly meetings, LeTip members exchange referrals, give short talks about their work, support each others' businesses, etc. While such highly structured organizations are not for everyone, LeTip has worked for Bird, who is currently president of the local chapter.
"At LeTip, you almost have to give leads," says Bird. "You are encouraged to use the structure to network and get to know each other."
Bird also is on the board of the Stanford Home for Children. Although their meetings have a far different purpose, the activities may still lead to referrals. "At these types of groups, you're developing relationships and getting to a comfort level with the people. And if someone has a need, you naturally think of the people you know."
No matter where he is networking, Bird makes notes on business cards to help him relate better to the people he meets. "I remember names of spouses and kids. I think it's very important."
Andrea Jackson, California State Assemblymember Darrell Steinberg's chief of staff, also found her career through leisure activity - another form of networking. She was playing third base on a women's softball team when she heard about a job in politics. "One of the players knew I might be looking for a career change and thought this would be a good fit."
An athletic field might seem like a far cry from the usual places people network, but Jackson specifically chose a team of women she could relate to before she joined. "These women all had careers and professional jobs, so we had that in common, as well as our love of sports."
Jackson heartily endorses sports teams as a good networking vehicle. "In my experience, women tend to want to help their teammates. It's an extension of the team spirit - helping them with other things they need such as jobs, childcare or decent doctors - whatever they are dealing with."
For Jackson, being on a team is better than socializing or going to wine-and-cheese events. "Playing sports with women is a good way to connect in an environment that has camaraderie and is conducive to building that sense of working together for a common goal."
With the legislature in full swing, Jackson has little time for team sports today, but she still networks. Because her job requires problem-solving in many different fields, the more people she knows the better. "The best way to solve a problem often is to find people who know the most about it. The more people I know, the better I'm going to be able to utilize relationships to help solve issues of contention in the legislature, or in the district office with constituents."
Like most people, Jackson admits that walking into a roomful of people where you don't know anyone is not the easiest thing to do. "At first, it was very hard for me to do that. I would go to events and not stay very long."
But over time, Jackson learned how to introduce herself and get a conversation going. "The more I did it, the easier it got. I also found that people are friendly and want to help you if they can. It's human nature to want to help each other."
Will Gonzalez of Gonzalez Public Affairs has used that tendency for people to want to help each other to build a successful lobbying business. Although he does not network with any formal group, he networks tirelessly with individuals.
"When I was starting this business, I had hundreds and hundreds of cups of coffee. I had coffee scheduled back-to-back all day long," recalls
Gonzalez. "I wanted to get people's advice - and also let them know I was doing this (building a business)."
Despite hundreds of hours on the phone arranging those cups of coffee, Gonzalez made few cold calls. "I don't like cold-calling. Usually the people are uncomfortable and not as open and helpful as they would be if I had had an entree from someone they knew and respected."
Gonzalez used the handful of people he knew to meet other people, who introduced him to still others. "There were people I wanted to talk to that I couldn't get access to. But by meeting with people I could get access to, I could say 'Oh, by the way, I'd really love to talk to so-and-so' and they would make the connection for me."
Despite his initial reluctance, Gonzalez developed a reputation as a go-getter. "Once you've done it (called) a couple times, you're not doing anything out of the ordinary. People actually respected the fact that I was going out there and talking to people.
"I was kind of shocked when I realized a lot of people aren't doing this. But actively pursuing people gives them the sense that you are making things happen."
And making things happen is the name of the game, no matter what field you are in.