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Networking Lessons Learned From The Most Productive Flat Tire of My Life

How a flat tire taught me lessons in networking and more

I’m a passenger in a nice Mercedes sedan cruising up the freeway with someone I just met about 20 minutes prior, and it’s not a hired car/drive situation As much as I should be enjoying being back among palm trees and cool breezes, a number of concerns are occupying my thoughts. However, after being in the car for 10 minutes, the last thing on my mind is being late for a very important meeting, or the rental car issues I’ve had over the last 24 hours. All that’s on my mind is, “Why is this man asking so many questions about my business?”

I had flown in cross-country the day before for a conference our company was hosting; It had been more than six months in the planning and was a very big event for us. Ten international interim executive firms had also flown in to attend. Unfortunately, on my way to the hotel, my car had picked up the largest nail I’d ever seen, ushering in my first experience with rental-car roadside assistance. It had gone better than expected and then I was on my way, driving on the car’s spare tire, which doesn’t allow for more than 70 cumulative miles or speeds in excess of 50 mph. That wouldn’t do; I’d need a replacement car, but the only rental car location I could reach didn’t open until the following morning, and because the car was technically “drivable,” no, the rental car company was not sending out any further assistance.

I wasn’t too worried. My meeting didn’t start until 9:00 am.

So there I was, Monday morning, at the rental car facility, right at 8:00 am. But no one else was there except other customers. Thirty minutes later, it was clear I was not going to be leaving anytime soon with a replacement car.

During that time, a nice couple in front of me started up a conversation. The husband was dropping off his wife to rent a car. I am an introvert and not much for small talk, especially when I am nervous, but I certainly wasn’t going to ignore them. Hearing about my situation, the man asked where my meeting was. I mentioned the city; he looked at me as if I hadn’t answered correctly. Then he asked for the street address.

It turned out his office was literally next door to where I needed to be, and also had a meeting starting at 9:00 am. After many promises that he was a nice person, and would get me there safely, I tossed the keys to the flustered rental car employee and we headed off together.

We are on the freeway. To ease my anxiety about making the meeting, my volunteer driver starts asking about the meeting and what I do.

Once I stop thinking about the meeting and focus on his questions, it becomes clear he knows a little about what I do, though he’s never heard of us.

Now we are talking business—I’m in my comfort zone. I am able to engage in conversation and ask him a few questions. It turns out, he has referred some of my competitors to clients.

By this point, he has learned enough about me that he has gained some atypical insights. He asks if we can follow up with a longer conversation on how we can work together. Before I know it, I realize my flat tire landed me up in a stranger’s car where I was networking on my way to a meeting.

Lesson #1: Never miss a networking opportunity to connect with someone.

With a little reflection after the fact, I realized later I would not have connected with this man had he not made most of the effort. I am an introvert by nature and have always had to work very hard at networking and meeting people. (For those who know me, this is somewhat laughable. I am told I come across as an extrovert so few believe that I can possibly be an introvert.)

Over the years, I have talked to hundreds of executives who are in the same situation. Networking takes a lot of work; I never understood those people who can simply go to the grocery store and come back with someone’s business card. When I ask, “How do you do that?”, the response is usually something along the lines of, “I just love learning about people.”

Coincidently, that same week, I was quoted in an article that included 15 networking habits you need to have. I read back through it and noticed the advice was all targeted at structured, intentional networking. But after my accidental networking experience, I see I still have a lot to learn about simply connecting with people.

In the past, I have always used being an introvert as an excuse.  Moving forward, I am challenging myself to do more personal connecting. Yes, that means I will need to be more open about myself and more aware of my surroundings. Instead of thinking about what I need to do when I get home from the grocery store, I will strike up a conversation with the person behind me and do my best not to sweat through my clothes from anxiety and fear.

Lesson learned #2:  Be present, be inquisitive, and be yourself.

As John Rampton points out in his article in Entrepreneur, you can’t change your temperament from introversion to extroversion. But I certainly can push myself to simply do things I am not comfortable with and use my energy to be more mentally present in the moment. The more present I am, the more opportunity I will find to meet others and see how I can help.

I am inspired by Sherry Gray, a self-professed introvert and freelance writer, who found the courage to go far outside her comfort zone to network with over 20,000 people in one year. I am not quite there yet, but I would like to set a goal for myself. Once a week, I intend to strike up a conversation with someone I don’t know in a non-business situation. This could be at the grocery store, car wash, or doctor’s office. I must learn three things about them and put a smile on their face.

I speak to independent executives on a daily basis who ask, “How do I get more visibility to grow my practice?,”  Aside from the usual responses, including, “Have you read my book?”, I will need to add, “Tell me three things you learned about each person you met in the past week.”

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