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If “networking” conjures up an image of schmoozing at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, rattling off your canned elevator speech, and thrusting your card at anyone who gets within arm’s reach, it’s time to expand your definition of networking.

First of all, we do a lot of our meeting-and-mingling virtually now, so even if it were a good idea to buttonhole somebody and insist they take your card, we don’t have much opportunity for that these days.

Instead, we need to focus on natural networking.

Natural networking happens anywhere people come together for any purpose. And yes, that includes online.

Like for instance … well, come back with me to the difficult time when my 25-year-career in radio had caved in and I was working mightily to reinvent myself as a corporate trainer. 

Funny thing about the people who hire corporate trainers – they’re not much interested in someone who has never been a corporate trainer. The search was scary, money was tight, and I was having a hard time keeping my spirits up.

But you gotta look good for interviews, right?

So, there I was, getting my nails done. Hands outstretched on her table, moaning to the manicurist about my job-hunting woes when her next appointment showed up.

Mariana made the introduction, and I swear the woman’s first words were, “You’re Catherine Johns!??!  I LOVE you.”

As you might guess, there was a back-story. Years before, when I was doing the news on Larry Lujack’s show at WLS, Barbara had written to me asking for an autographed picture she could give to her fiancé for his birthday. He listened to us every morning and he had a huge crush on me. 

That was back before news people were supposed to be personalities; I didn’t even have an 8×10 glossy to autograph.

So, I drew a cartoonish figure of a woman with curly hair like mine talking into a microphone, with “WLS News” in the balloon coming out of her mouth. Wrote a birthday greeting, signed it, sent it off, and forgot all about it.

By the time I met Barbara, seventeen years later, sadly, her fiancé had died. She still kept a box full of his important papers. And get this—my scrawled self-portrait was in that box. It had meant a lot to him. And that meant a lot to her.

So, when we got to talking, that day in the salon, Barbara offered to help me out in any way she could.  She was pretty sure there weren’t any training jobs where she worked. But after she thought for a minute she suggested that I get in touch with her friend Jean. Jean freelanced for some big health care companies; she might know about positions in learning and development.

I took a chance and called Jean; what did I have to lose?

Jean didn’t have a clue about any likely positions.  But considering she didn’t know me from Adam, she was generous: “Why don’t you call my friend Kate?  She’s the manager at a consulting firm that does training.”

So now I’m three degrees out from the original person who was trying to help me, and who was a total stranger anyway. But this sounds like a red-hot lead! I’m going for it.

I summon up my courage, call Kate and leave her a voice mail: “Your friend Jean suggested I get in touch with you.  I don’t think you’ll be sorry; please give me a call.” Kate clearly has a spirit of adventure (and a lot of trust in Jean) because she did give me a call. 

We set up an interview. It went well. That led to an audition of sorts at her firm’s New York office. And, Hallelujah! My why-you-people-should-hire-me presentation launched my new career as a communication skills trainer and coach.

Three big take-aways for you:

  1. This whole fortuitous chain of events started with a manicure. You just never know where you’re going to meet the person who can change everything for you. Certainly, it might be at a conventional business networking meeting, but it might just as likely be at your kid’s soccer game, or barbecue at a friend’s house. Or a nail salon.

Think broadly about networking.

  1. It takes nerve to follow up on the leads we get; most of us aren’t all that comfortable calling complete strangers and asking for help. Some of us stay stuck for months out of the fear of making those calls. It is so worth the effort to just go ahead and reach out. So many people are surprisingly willing to lend a hand.

Make the call.

  1. Long before I needed a favor from Barbara or thought I ever might, I had done one for her. Maybe she would have been open to helping me anyway – she’s a decent human being. But she was eager to extend a hand to me because of that long-ago gesture.

Call it “Givers Gain,” as they do at BNI … call it the Golden Rule … call it the karma train pulling into the station. The surest way to create relationships that are good for you is to …

Create relationships that benefit somebody else.

Whether you hope to meet potential clients or referral sources, or you’re in the midst of a search for a full-time job, thinking broadly about networking will pay off for you.

Maybe it already has?

Post a comment here and tell us about it.