“She’s part of the in-crowd.” “I’ve been a member a long time, but I still feel like a newcomer.” “What does somebody have to do to be part of the inner circle?”
Have you overheard your members say similar things? As experts who teach professional networking skills, we hear comments like these all the time.People wonder how to join the inner circle, what they have to do to become part of the in-crowd.
In this article, we’ll explore what you, as an association executive, can do to foster a sense of belonging and ownership in your members. We’ll look at ways you can help them join the envied inner circle.
Our research indicates that only about 15 percent of your members feel comfortable and competent with the relationship building skills needed to take full advantage of the circle of contacts that association membership offers.At receptions, meetings, and conferences, they wonder and worry, “Who should I talk to?” “How can I possibly remember so many names?”“I won’t have anything important to say.” According to The Shyness Clinic at Stanford University, more than 50 percent of Americans say they feel shy and uncomfortable in a variety of business and social settings.Our research, conducted at a wide variety of association and corporate events, shows that 66 percent of people are unsure of how to best answer “What do you do?” and 85 percent say they don’t know what to talk about to build the relationship.
So what can you do to help?First, we recommend that you and your staff become knowledgeable about the six stages of relationship growth, so you can design activities and events that help people move professionally and intentionally toward richer professional connections.When you offer more ways for all your members to have meaningful interactions, the gap between those who feel a part of things and those who feel outside the inner circle will diminish.
Relationships grow in stages – six stages that represent the growing trust your members have in each other. Imagine, or better yet: draw, five concentric circles, like a bull's-eye. From the center out, label these areas: Allies, Advocates, Actors, Associates, Acquaintances, and outside the drawing: Accidents. As you see in your diagram, Accidents float around outside the five concentric circles.You’re in seat 14A.Next to you, in 14B, is an Accident.An Accident is a person you have no regular way of seeing. You might have a perfectly delightful conversation, but nothing will happen in the future, unless you make it happen.
Inside the outermost circle of the bulls-eye are Acquaintances.These are people your members could find again, if they had to because they know someone in common.Think of the architect you met at your cousin’s wedding.Because you don’t have regular contact, it’s more challenging to build the relationship, but you could find him again through your cousin.
Inside the next circle, are Associates.All of your members are Associates because they’ve joined the same group – your association.At your meetings they see each other repeatedly.Our studies show that it takes six contacts, six good conversations, before two people know and trust in each otherenough to go out on a limb, put their good names on the line, or go to bat for each other. So your challenge is to help people make the most of those repeated contacts. Just because people are Associates, it doesn’t mean they have a relationship.Until they begin to act as resources for each other, they won’t join each other’s inner circle.
Once your members have acted – exchanged something of value – a tip, a resource, some information, an introduction – they become Actors.As Actors, they actively swap with each other and can begin to experience each other’s character and competence and eventually trust each other.People who trust each are an inner circle.
Once trust is established, your members become Advocates for each other.An Advocate says, “Dave would be great for the Awards committee.” Or “Let’s ask Susan to run for the board.” Or “Get Juanita to introduce the keynoter. She’s so comfortable in front of a crowd.”An Advocate knows her contact so well that when she sees an opportunity or a resource that would appeal to that person, she takes action. Advocates trust in each others’ character and competence so completely that they will unhesitatingly pass each other’s names along and bring each other into their circles.Advocates can give vivid examples of each other in action, serving a client, saving the day, solving a problem.
Finally (in the center circle), your members will have a few Allies.Allies are on their “personal board of directors.” Allies will do all they can to help each other reach their goals. They will seek out opportunities for each other.They’ll celebrate when things go well and commiserate when things go wrong. Allies experience a high degree of confidentiality and always tell each other the truth.
Unfortunately, the chitchat during open networking time typically goes like this: “Hi, how are you?” “Good! How are you?” “Not bad. What’s new? “Not much. What’s new with you?”In that oft-repeated conversation, there’s no content to build a relationship on, much less any hint of what the talkers have to offer or need to find.
As a way to help people have richer conversations, we recommend that at meetings and conferences, in addition to providing a speaker and having unstructured networking time, you also lead members in structured networking activities.These structured activities offer two benefitsFirst, they help people connect who wouldn’t normally meet. And they guide people into conversations where they can glimpse each others’ character and competence.In open networking, people often choose to talk with people they already know.In structured networking, people are led into randomly chosen paired conversations and small group discussions on topics that get past those ho-hum discussions.The new energy and “in group” feeling that these activities create is dramatic.
In structured networking activities, you can provoke the kinds of in-depth conversations that will help your members move quickly and intentionally through the six stages.The goal is not for everyone to become Allies.That’s not necessary or realistic.Instead, by knowing the six stages and having activities that encourage rich interaction, you give the maximum number of members the chance to show each other their character and competence and feel part of the in-crowd sooner.
Three structured networking activities: It’s In the Cards Each person attending the event draws a playing card.For the first round, people form small groups based on the numeral on their cards and are given a topic to explore. For the second conversation, people get in groups by suits and are asked to come up with a new slogan or bumper sticker for the association, or for the upcoming conference or other special event. In completing a task together the people in the group quickly learn more about each other’s character and competence. Great Connections This Activity is a series of leader-led paired conversations.If you just do a few one-on-ones at every meeting, the trust and camaraderie in the group grows quickly.Good conversations are a search for commonalities or needs, so in each one-on-one the leader gives you and your partner a topic or questions to talk about for 5 or 6 minutes. Here are three examples:
What’s the biggest transformation or change you’ve experienced at work or in your career? Think back and tell your partner about a change you’ve been through and how it’s affecting your future.
If you could step into someone else’s shoes for a day, whose would you choose?Your boss’s? Oprah’s? Bill Gates’s?The president of this association?Why do you choose this person and what’s one skill or perspective you’d bring that you think would be a plus?
Whether you’re 26 or 62, you might like to be honored and remembered. Tell your partner what you’d like to have named after you.That’s right, if something in the world could be named after you, what would you like it to be?A stadium? A planet? A new Broadway theater?(Give an example using the name of someone in the audience:‘The Mary Blakely Theatrical Arts Center’ or ‘The Jim Walters Children’s Hospital.’”
Meet the Pros In small group meetings of 6 or 8, members have structured discussions led by members who are pros in their fields and have special expertise to share. This activity is a good way to honor and involve members who hold “expert” or “celebrity” status and might not usually attend meetings. Each Meet the Pros session takes about 30 minutes, so if you run 2 rounds your program will take about an hour. Advertising these special table discussions ahead of time often brings out people who don’t normally attend, because they are tired of having the same old conversations. It’s a good way for newcomers to get to spend 30 minutes with someone from the inner circle and begin to build a relationship. ▪
Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon are principals of Contacts Count, a nationwide consulting and training firm that specializes in business and professional networking, and career development. They are co-authors of six books. The most recent is Make Your Contacts Count: Networking Know-How for Business and Career Success (AMACOM, 2nd Edition). Fortune 500 companies license their training programs. Put the tools of networking to work in the service of business goals. Visit www.ContactsCount.com and www.FireProofYourCareer.com 301-589-8633
Networking Know-How: The Contacts Count System for Savvy Professionals and Smart Companies An 80-minute “live” audio CD workshop that reveals the rules and tools of networking, featuring Lynne Waymon, nationally known expert.
Make Your Contacts Count by Anne Baber & Lynne Waymon (AMACOM, 2nd edition, New York) The best step-by-step book on how to create, cultivate, and capitalize on networking relationships and opportunities.
Activity Guides (one for corporations, one for associations, & one for alumni groups), 10 downloadable icebreakers to get people talking & connecting.
Contacts Count e-mail newsletterEvery 4 weeks, short, practical, innovative tips, examples, & stories highlight networking skills and strategies.The best way to stay in touch!
Job Hunt 50 downloadable tips on how to land that job (or at the Apple Store for your iPhone)
Want to know more about Contacts Count?
The premier consulting and training firm specializing in business networking skills training for more than 20 years