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Don’t just sit on the bench

Len Stevens

This is one of my favorite times of the year. No, it’s not because I’m a hopeless romantic with an affinity for heart-shaped balloons and sappy love songs (though I do have a special Valentine). It’s because, as a former college basketball coach, I love the squeak of sneakers on the hardwood and the swishing sound of leather on nylon. The college basketball season is kicking into high gear and the intensity of late February and March are unmatched in the sports world.

In my coaching days, the first thing I looked for in a player was someone who had heart The player that wanted to be on the court at all times, especially during the toughest times when the chips were down.

Oftentimes, these weren’t the tallest, quickest or most talented players. Yet these were the guys who could consistently be counted on. They succeeded and excelled. Now, in my experience working as the executive director for the Sparks Chamber of Commerce, I have come to realize that, much like in sport, the successful businesses are not the ones who sit on the bench shying away from adversity and freezing under the pressure of tough times. Rather, the businesses and professionals that succeed and excel are the ones that, pardon the expression, bust their tails networking, participating and generally putting themselves out there.

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a local small business owner who expressed his resolve and commitment to succeed despite a sagging economy. Now, certainly this isn’t a unique sentiment, but it was the remainder of the conversation that left me feeling confident that this business owner would be around for many years to come.

I asked him what he was currently doing to attract customers and promote his business. He acknowledged that he had a very small marketing budget and, outside of a few strategically placed print advertisements, he really couldn’t afford the luxury of paid advertising. However, he wasn’t terribly concerned because he felt that, at the end of the day, he was the best advertisement for his business. He was confident he had a quality product and his employees provided outstanding customer service; he simply needed to interact with more potential customers and partners.

He also told me that he never considered himself much of a “schmoozer” or a “mover and shaker” and, while he had made a point of participating in as many networking events and business luncheons and mixers as his budget would allow, he always approached these events with some trepidation. Although he did make some decent connections and generate an adequate amount of business at these events, his discomfort seemed to limit their true benefit.

That all changed for him in the middle of last year. While chatting with the other parents at one of his son’s Little League games, the conversation turned towards business. They all began to vent frustrations, share tips and tricks and generally learn about each other’s business and profession. At the end of the conversation, one of the parents marveled that she had no idea her child’s baseball games could be such a

tremendous networking opportunity. That’s when it clicked for him.

He had always approached networking events and business functions feeling like he needed to overtly hawk his wares and force his business into the conversation. He was never comfortable with this and felt if he didn’t get the chance to adequately talk about his business, he had failed in the purpose of the event and had wasted his time. He hadn’t realized until last summer at his son’s Little League game that each and every day was filled with a series of networking opportunities he just views these as daily interactions

with family, friends, acquaintances and neighbors.

Ultimately, though, these interactions offered a chance for him to build and strengthen relationships and, in turn, help him build his business.

Once he became aware of this, he also began to change his view on the way he networks and what constitutes successful networking. He started to approach all of his interactions with the same philosophy, no matter if he was in the supermarket or at a chamber mixer. No longer feeling compelled to force his business into a conversation, realizing that, more often than not, it came up naturally, he instead focused on building relationships. He figured that if he could positively connect with people, whether it was talking about life, sports, politics or business, there was a significant likelihood that it would have a positive impact on his business.

Networking is, by its literal definition, a term that refers to sharing services and information among a like-minded group. However, for many people, networking is the simple act of building relationships and making connections. It not only applies to business functions and chamber mixers but to trips to the post office and Little League games. There is no doubt that some people are better networkers than others and, to succeed in today’s economic conditions, it is important for all of us to become more savvy networkers.

However, too many people let their perception of what networking is and what makes it successful get in the way of their ability to make sincere connections. In certain social settings, they fold under the pressure of what they feel they are expected to do and fail to recognize the impact that a genuine connection can have on their professional career.

As this business owner is doing, it is critical for the success of your business and your career, to not find yourself sitting on the bench and watching the game from the sidelines just because the pressure’s building. Put yourself out there. View each daily interaction as a networking and relationship building opportunity and give your business a chance to succeed.

Len Stevens is executive director of the Sparks Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at 358-1976 or at http://www.sparkschamber.org.