Are You in the Right Room? An Important Key to Networking Success

I’ve been doing a lot more speeches this year, and occasionally I’ve woken up from what I consider a version of the “speaker’s nightmare.” Not the “standing in front of the audience in your underwear” or the “go out to speak and realize you’ve forgotten your notes and have no idea what you’re supposed to say” dream. In this version, I walk out with confidence, turn to the audience—and realize I’m in the wrong room.

Unfortunately, a lot of people experience the same problem in their networking efforts. They want to reach individuals that can be helpful to them and their businesses; they’d like to get to know leaders in their professions and communities. But they don’t have access to where those people congregate. In fact, they don’t know where to start looking in the first place. So they end up going to networking events where they shake hands with a lot of other businesspeople just like themselves—in other words, they’re in the wrong room for their goals.

I’m all for networking with colleagues and peers—but in order to reach the movers and shakers in your industry or community, you have to understand how ecosystems work. I define an ecosystem as a web of professional and personal connections, linked by common interests, and sharing knowledge and access unavailable to outsiders. Every town, city, and state has its own ecosystem, as does every profession and industry. The key players in each ecosystem know each other, meet with each other, and do deals with each other. The places where those key players meet are the “rooms” you want to get yourself into.

Getting yourself into the right room is a four-step process. First, you must identify the ecosystems that are important for your particular business and community. (Make sure you include politics, finance, and media, as these are key ecosystems for everyone.) Second, identify the key players in those ecosystems. Some of these people may be obvious—the presidents of the local banks and largest corporations, for instance—but others might not be as visible—many angel investors, for example, keep a low profile unless you know someone who can introduce you to them. Often you will hear the names of the low-profile people only after you’ve met some of the other key players in that particular ecosystem.

Third, start researching where the key players appear. Do they attend certain community functions? Business meetings or conferences? What are their hobbies or personal interests? (It can be easier to meet someone at a social sporting event.) What charities do they contribute to, and what causes do they support?

The fourth and final step is to get yourself into the rooms where key players will be. When I was working for the Department of Aging in Idaho, I volunteered for the finance committee of the city’s United Way campaign. This put me in the same room with C-level financial executives from some of the biggest companies in the area. It also put me in constant touch with the administrative assistant for the governor of Idaho. Volunteering is often a great way to get yourself into the same room with the movers and shakers of a community or other ecosystem.

Some of the “right rooms” that are rising in popularity in business today are “curated” events—invitation-only (or contribution-only) small gatherings where people of similar interests and backgrounds come together. (Alley to the Valley is such a curated event for women in the tech industry of Silicon Valley.) Are there curated events for your profession or industry, or in your town or community? Better yet, could you hold such a curated event?

Not long ago master networker Jay Allen told me a story of his wanting to get to know ten of the most prominent CIOs in his particular field. He cold-called one of them and said, “Would you like to have lunch with nine other top CIOs in the area so you could discuss common challenges and solutions?” The CIO agreed—and from there the businessman called other CIOs and said, “Would you like to join the CIO of Such-and-Such Company at lunch to discuss best practices? No selling, just information.” In no time ten CIOs had agreed to come. Jay then served as the host of the lunch—and got to know ten top executives on a first-name basis. He created the right room to increase his business.

When you understand ecosystems and how they work, it’s much easier to figure out where the right rooms are to gain access to the people you need to reach. And being in the right room makes it much easier to create the right connections and build the right relationships to help you succeed.