Every year around this year I fly to Arizona and attend the IAB Annual Meeting, a confab of 1000+ executives in the interactive media business. Yes, it’s a rubber-chicken boondoggle – what ballroom-based warm-climated event in February isn’t? – but I go because I get to catch up with dozens of colleagues and friends, and I usually connect to a handful of interesting new folks as well. I hate the travel and despise most hotel rooms, but on balance, well – I keep going. (And yes, I think the NewCo model is even more productive, but more on that in another post).
I find the best connections happen over dinner or drinks – perhaps that’s my own convivial nature, but I sense I’m not alone. So I want to tell you a story of a chance meeting at a bar, because it evokes a larger lesson in business: you’re only as good as your relationships – and those relationships often exist outside traditional boundaries of time and space.
If you’re scratching your head, stay with me. I hope to clarify.
Monday night I was at the bar, chatting with old friends in the industry. The room was filled with happy half-tipsy industry types, the pleasant din of convivial glad-handing was well underway. At one point I looked to my right and saw a young man who caught my eye and lit up with recognition. “John, my man, how are you?!” he proclaimed, extending his hand for an enthusiastic shake.
Now here’s where I need to admit something. I’ve been in this industry for nearly 30 years, and for 20 of them I’ve been relatively well known in this small circle of digital publishing – I was on the Board of the IAB for six years, and I’ve graced the stage of the annual meeting several times. The net of it is this: At places like the IAB, a lot more folks remember my name than I do theirs. It doesn’t help that I suck at remembering names to begin with, and it’s only gotten worse as I’ve careened toward middle age and beyond. (I’m not alone in this, I just love this TED talk from David Hornik – I’m not dyslexic, but I sure feel that way when it comes to names).
All of which is a long way of saying I didn’t have the faintest idea whose hand I was at present shaking. He looked familiar – maddeningly so – but I could not remember the connection. I am afraid this happens to me far more than I’d like to admit.
Usually when presented with this dilemma, I employ a strategy of conversing my way to enlightenment – hoping for a high order bit that might remind me of our connection. Alas, the man was enveloped in his own bubble of conversation, and after his friendly overture, he returned to his group. I doubt he knew I was struggling to recall his name – I’ll admit, sheepishly, that I displayed recognition as I returned his warm greeting.
Now, I could have written that exchange off, not given it another thought. But these things vex me – I hate not knowing who’s reached out to me with obvious awareness and good intent. It tugged at me the rest of the evening, until hours later, at dinner, it dawned on me who the fellow was. Turns out, he’s a quite successful investor and entrepreneur, but it had been a few years since I’d seen him in the flesh, and I just didn’t make the connection in the moment.
I was pleased with my recall, even if it was late. It closed an otherwise unfulfilled loop – I hate potential lapses in relationships, even if the other party had no idea I had failed to remember their name.
The next day provided a perfect example of why this matters. While waiting for my flight at the Phoenix airport I took a call from an old college friend, a man who has built a great career in banking and venture capital. He wanted to talk about a particular firm – a very well respected company with which he had potential business. And by now you can probably figure out whose company that was – it was the company where my mystery man worked.
“Ah, I just saw him last night,” I could truthfully tell my friend on the phone. “He’s a great guy, and his firm is top rate. I’d be happy to provide an introduction if you’d like.”
I have no idea if my two colleagues will end up doing business together, but that’s not the point. In business, the network is always on – even across the axis of time. The night before, I had no idea I’d be presented with a chance to introduce two great people. But if I hadn’t taken the time to close that open relationship loop, I’d have lost the chance to provide a truly warm introduction – one that might have strengthen the fabric of not only my own network, but of theirs as well. And that’d have been a shame.
Tend to your network, and do your best to return the favor of a warm greeting. You never know when it might come back to you.