On Monday a professional named Wendy posted an article to LinkedIn about why she doesn’t do coffee meetings anymore. Lot’s of people shouted back at her. Then, rather than ducking away or trying to invalidate others, she addressed her critics and clarified her point somewhat admirably.
Wendy makes some good points. Each person only has so much time to give. It’s impossible to give your time and attention to everyone that asks for it. And not all coffee meetings are created equal. You can spend your time networking with others without actually being productive. Collaborating with others and growing your network is a good thing. But any good thing can be taken too far.
Once upon a time I joined a BNI group that told me I would get more business if I met more people beyond short, superficial exchanges at happy hours and networking mixers. So I started doing coffee meetings. I was a young(er) professional in a new city, so growing my network seemed like a good idea. Plus, I’m an extravert so this kind of activity is naturally fun for me.
I made my rounds at Starbucks and Panera. Then I started finding all the cool local places. I learned to stay away from the places with crappy wifi. I met tons of people. We talked about where we grew up and our interests away from work. Eventually we’d get around to explaining what we do and the type of business we’re looking for. Sometimes it didn’t even feel like working. I carried this activity into my next job at an advertising agency and before I knew it three years had passed since my inauguration as a coffee shop nomad.
But I was starting to grow tired of it. Results from my passive networking efforts and word-of-mouth marketing strategy paled in comparison to the hunt-and-kill tactics of traditional business development. If I had read Wendy’s post at that time, I may have hung up my Starbucks card right then and there.
But I didn’t. Partially because I wanted to believe I was doing the right thing. But mostly I was fortunate enough to be influenced by a few people who believed in my strategy and encouraged me to keep going.
Things changed for a few reasons. First, I stopped telling people what kind of person I wanted them to believe me to be. I realized it was better to justbe that person. I wanted to be known as a marketing expert and a prolific writer. So I looked for every chance I could to prove it — in every single meeting. Because truth told isn’t as powerful as truth realized.
Then I realized people aren’t just looking for marketers and copywriters. They’re looking for anyone that cares. How often does someone — let alone a professional with an agenda that may contradict yours — go out of their way for you? Almost freaking never. So I started doing that, too. I listened and I helped. I proofread cover letters and advised against bad investments. I passed referrals and made introductions that would help both people. I did all sorts of weird stuff. I asked for nothing in return. Turns out helping people this way is extremely gratifying in itself. But it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Human beings are hard-wired for reciprocity. Even though I never demanded something back, most people couldn’t help but try to return the favor. And return they did.
It’s been two years since my realization — and five since my professional wardrobe’s been absorbing evaporated coffee beans on the reg. But only this year have I learned the greatest lesson of them all.
In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins calls this the flywheel concept. Flywheels are large and heavy and require a TON of force to move and even more to make one complete revolution. The second turn is still extruciatingly hard but not quite as hard as the first one. The third one gets a little easier, and so on. Keep pushing and eventually you’ll be able to let go and the thing will spin on it’s own momentum.
Companies aren’t overnight successes. Neither are people. They only appear that way because we don’t tend to notice them when their flywheel is moving at a snail’s pace. We try to emulate people once they’re self-propelling motion but get frustrated when it doesn’t work. Don’t be surprised if six months of coffee meetings doesn’t double your bottom line.
A lot of the business I’ve brought in recently are a result of the efforts that began five years ago. I’m lucky to have a fairly vast network to tap into but that wasn’t built overnight, either. Much of what I know now and my perspective on the future was largely shaped by the hundreds of conversations I’ve had over steaming paper cups.
But I’m content with where I am. I still belong to BNI. I still do all sorts of networking. I still demonsrate my value. I still help people. I still don’t ask for anything in return. I’m still patient.