It’s Not Who You Know, It’s How Many

What's in your wallet? For fans of "extreme networking," lots and lots of business cards.
Laura DeMarsJanuary 4, 2007

When David Noymer started the hunt for a new job last fall, he had no trouble finding personal contacts who might lend a helping hand. With a database of more than 2,100 CFOs, accountants, CPAs, lawyers, and other professionals at his disposal, the former CFO of Lehman Millet Inc. knew so many people that he could meet a different colleague for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for the next two years.

“I try to leave each conference, seminar, or organization meeting with two to four memorable contacts,” Noymer says. “Eventually they just add up.”

But Noymer’s list of 2,100 is a cozy club compared with the 4,700 contacts amassed by David Fogel, vice president of finance and treasurer at Webgen Systems Inc., an energy-utilization software development firm. Fogel says that his background in marketing may give him a leg up when it comes to schmoozing, but that any finance executive can build a substantial friends-of-me list with just a little effort. What’s more, he says such a list is useful in many ways other than job-hunting: you might research potential job candidates, use it to find a better way to complete an at-work project, or find a speaker for a conference. “I’ve used my network on a number of occasions to just ask a lot of dumb auditing questions,” Fogel adds.

Connecting on a Higher Level

Before racing off to the next conference with a briefcase full of business cards, however, CFOs should perfect their meet-and-greet skills. “Being able to convey clearly and concisely who you are,” says Noymer, “makes it easier to connect on a higher level with people.”

You can even refine your glad-handing by taking a class. Noymer and Fogel share their knack for networking by co-teaching a seminar called “Extreme Networking” as part of a career services program of Financial Executives International’s Boston chapter. The two show other CFOs how to keep a database of contacts, where to find the best places to network (everything from FEI dinners to receptions hosted by law firms), and how to develop and maintain professional relationships.

One way to ramp up quickly is to attend “speed networking” events, which are similar to speed dating and provide an easy way to get a taste of networking in a structured environment. Networkers meet each person for a short period, usually four minutes or less, which is just enough time to exchange basic information and contact data, and maybe make a mental note as to whether this is the start of a beautiful friendship. By the end of the night, attendees leave with contacts from a wide range of industries and professions. “Sometimes you don’t know how to approach a group or break away from a conversation when you’re in a room full of people,” says Amanda Nissman, president of Networking for Professionals, which hosts speed-networking events from Atlanta to New York. “At these events you get exposure and avoid awkward small talk.”

Another way to make sure networks are versatile is to join organizations or attend events that are not finance-focused. “Once I saw a seminar sponsored by the Northeast Human Resources Association that looked very interesting, so I went,” says Fogel. “It was all HR professionals, and me, which made for a great conversation starter.” Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight and author of Never Eat Alone, a guide to forging business relationships, recommends that finance executives make a greater effort to network within their own companies. For example, he says, “the heads of other departments are less likely to give you the runaround at budget time if you’ve gotten to know them before.” Some of those people will no doubt move on to other companies, allowing your network to expand organically.

Personal networks are also a great way to solicit peer advice. “Whatever you’re going through at your company,” says Ferrazzi, “someone at another company is probably going through the same thing.” While many people have access to formal organizations or informal lunch clubs, a Rolodex or PDA loaded with peers at similar companies is a great resource for determining if a new compliance-software package is right for your industry, or learning whether your colleagues favor the latest FASB proposal.

Maintenance Is Everything

It may be easier to build a contact list than to maintain it, however. “Networking doesn’t just happen after joining a few associations,” Fogel says. “Cultivating and keeping relationships with contacts is a long-term effort.” Noymer recommends jotting down a few notes on the back of a business card once it’s handed to you, to remind you of your conversation, and says that contacting people 48 hours after a first meeting is a good way to build on what you’ve started. Both men say it also helps to attend events often, so that you see the same people on some kind of regular basis. If you really hit it off, arrange a lunch or similar one-on-one meeting.

For people you don’t come to know well, sending holiday greetings with a business card enclosed helps to maintain some semblance of contact (and to alert the person if your address, company affiliation, or other information has changed). Fogel admits that a few relationships may fall by the wayside (some of the names on his list are a decade old) but adds that using a database program such as Sage Software’s ACT can help you sort by keyword and otherwise manage your posse so that when you need to get in touch with that expert on Paraguayan import duties, you can find her. In the end, Noymer says, a good network is one that has variety and depth. And though it may take a bit of effort, he believes such networks pay off in unforeseen ways. Who knows: you might even make an actual friend along the way.

Laura DeMars is staff reporter at CFO.