From the November 2005 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Well Connected

You know that networking with peers is valuable, but it isn't as easy as it sounds

As the financial planning world expands, it's more important than ever to be able to network productively. Connecting with other professionals can lead to all sorts of potential benefits, from camaraderie and relaxation to learning and referrals.

Networking comes easily to me. I tend to have intuitive feelings right off the bat about folks I'll be able to relate to. For many not-so-extroverted people, however, this is easier said than done. The decision of where, when, how, and even whether to network can be colored by a variety of issues. What if the people you want to connect with are different from you? How do you know if you can trust them? What if they're not interested in getting to know you? Here are some thoughts that may help guide you on this dimly lit path.

After working in a wirehouse environment for years, I recently joined an independent planning practice. My new colleagues keep talking about the value of networking with peers. Maybe I'm just used to hustling for business, but I'm skeptical about trying to buddy up to my competitors. I think the important thing is to serve the client well. What's your view? It's a fairly major shift to switch from a work identity based on selling products to one centered on providing a service. As you've probably discovered, clients are apt to criticize you when things don't go their way, while stinting their praise when all is well.

Connecting with others who are in the same boat can help you feel more supported, less lonely, and ultimately more energized. Whether you're socializing at formal meetings, over lunch or coffee, or on the golf course, good networking can lighten the load of coping with clients' varied foibles, defenses, and problems as you try to meet their needs. When you find colleagues whose personal chemistry meshes with your own, you also have the opportunity to pool your experience and insight with theirs. For example, you can organize a group to address difficult client situations or brainstorm solutions to business issues.

I wholeheartedly agree that your primary mission is to meet your clients' needs. But unless you make opportunities to get personal validation, constructive feedback, and learning experiences from others, you risk burning out in your new helping profession.

Your colleagues are right to emphasize the powerful effect that networking can have in keeping you fresh and vital in your work. If you reach out for this support, I feel sure you'll be rewarded.

As a relatively young planner, I know that one of the best ways to establish my new practice is to build relationships with colleagues. At association meetings, I typically hand out 10 to 20 business cards. But no one calls me, and when I contact other planners to get together for lunch, they always seem to be too busy. What am I doing wrong, and how can I fix it? Giving out your business cards is fine, but it's not the most efficient way to network. When you meet colleagues at business meetings, try to ascertain what their personal and professional interests are. See if you can find a few people whose passions are close to your own. In my case, if I meet a Scrabble fanatic or a ballroom dancer at a professional conference, I'm much more likely to make time for them amid my other priorities.

There may also be some personal factors contributing to the lack of response from others. You might ask a trusted friend or relative how to improve your approach to people with whom you want to cultivate a professional connection.

For example, are you coming on too strong? Colleagues who are less outgoing may need more time to judge whether they want to open up to you. Do you distribute cards indiscriminately to everyone you meet? You may be more successful in reaching out only to people with whom you feel some kind of affinity. Are you too obviously forcing yourself to make contact? If you're a naturally shy person, consider taking a more active role in a professional group so people will get to know you over time.

Once you get some feedback, you may want to modify your approach. One possibility is to pierce the wall of your colleagues' busyness or disinterest by offering some pleasant new experience they might enjoy. If they still say they're too busy, take the risk of asking if they'd be open to getting together in a month or so. Their response will make it clear whether the door is permanently closed, or they're just feeling overloaded right now.

If you analyze your situation and are patient, you'll eventually figure out what you need to do to network more successfully. This should make it easier to build peer relationships that will help you establish your new practice in the community.

Our boss doesn't like junior associates to hang out with people from other planning firms. He says it's a waste of time since these get-togethers don't produce income, but I think he's worried that if they get to know us, they'll try to hire us away. All we really want is to have some laughs together and maybe learn something to help us do the job better. How can we get Mr. Big to lighten up? I think there are two possible ways to address this problem: one direct and the other indirect.

The direct approach would entail some research to uncover success stories--networking activities that have increased revenue for other firms. At the same time that you try to educate your boss with these case histories, you'd need to reassure him subtly of your loyalty to him.

If his attitude is unbending, or if you might indeed be lured away to a better job, I don't see why he has to know what you do after hours. That's Plan B.

For example, you could hang out with your colleagues for some TGIF schmoozing at the end of the workweek. Or start a softball or volleyball league with teams from various financial firms. You'll need to be scrupulous about not compromising confidential company information or client privacy, of course. But on the whole, I would expect your work to be enhanced by this kind of cross-fertilization.

Even if Mr. Big thinks networking is a waste of time, I can't see him objecting to these get-togethers in any way that affects your job security. And who knows? Maybe he'll even decide to go with the flow and have a few laughs with you.

As a longtime member of NAPFA, I socialize a fair amount with friends who are also fee-only planners. We belong to a book group whose membership is dwindling, so I suggested bringing in two new people who happen to be active in the FPA. Several of my friends unleashed a tirade accusing FPA members who don't belong to NAPFA of being slick sales types. I know the two people in question, and they're not like that. How can I handle this without creating bad blood? It's saddening to hear another example of intolerance and bias against people who aren't in the "in-group." However, this is a real opportunity for you to be a bridge-builder.

I suggest getting together with your book-group pals individually. Describe the personality and character of the two new members you've proposed, and let your friends know how disappointed you are in the group's blanket prejudice against colleagues from other professional associations. What should matter is whether these folks are people of high integrity, dedicated to their work and committed to helping their clients. (Of course, many NAPFA and FPA members belong to both organizations.)

Urge your friends to get acquainted with each of the prospective book-group participants in a neutral environment--over lunch, maybe, or at your house for dinner. Once they've met the duo, their qualms may vanish.

Alternatively, you could suggest a temporary tryout where the new members investigate whether the group is a good fit for them, and the rest of the group checks them out as well. At the end of three months or so, everyone can decide whether to continue the relationship. That may make the process more flexible in a way that relaxes your friends. I wish you luck in getting them to open their minds and hearts to the possibility of creative cross-fertilization.

I'm interested in getting together with a group of other advisors to discuss difficult client situations. It might be useful to include an estate attorney, an accountant, and maybe even a therapist. How do I find people with integrity who will be knowledgeable and supportive? In my field, we call these "supervision groups," and they're a great way to help solve hard cases by obtaining other professional ideas and opinions.

To identify compatible members for your group, I'd gather the names of people who are liked and trusted by their peers. Meet with these candidates one on one in a relaxed environment. Talk about their work and your work. Ask if they've ever felt dissatisfied with the way they handled a situation. Float a test question about a client you're having trouble with, or someone you fear you didn't serve well, and listen to the feedback you get. Are they supportive? If they're critical of the way you dealt with the matter, is the assessment constructive or does it make you feel put down?

As for integrity, I'm not sure how you can verify someone else's principles in a general way. You might ask others in the profession for their views, but it's still a difficult call. My advice is to find out all you can, then go with your gut feeling. Together with your one-on-one conversations, this should help you come up with a group that meets your needs for positive confrontation, learning, and support.

In a helping profession where hard work can lead you to feel isolated and unappreciated, networking with colleagues may help you feel more validated, more intellectually stimulated, and less likely to burn out. Make opportunities to mix it up with kindred spirits in after-hours pursuits as well as professional groups and conferences.

There's no downside to networking. The more you do it, the better you'll get at making connections that can help keep you fresh, alive, and evolving in your worklife.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor's Guide to Money Psychology, available through www.investmentadvisor.com. You can e-mail Olivia at om@moneyharmony.com.

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