HOW TO BUILD YOUR IDEAL NETWORK
10 LESSONS FROM 10 YEARS IN 10 MARKETS
The Exit Planning Exchange is a unique business network that held its first meeting just over 10 years ago. Our goal has always been to be the ideal network for a very defined group of people: professional advisors to privately-held businesses in the lower middle market. Today, we have 10 Chapters in markets across the U.S. with 600 members. Along the way, we've learned important lessons applicable to anyone looking to build their own ideal business network. Here are 10 of the most important lessons we’ve learned.
The first lesson is completely counter-intuitive: You can't build a network for business if your only intention is just to get new business. It’s counterintuitive because a business network should, by definition, help your business. While that has to be part of what you're looking for when you design your ideal network, it’s more complicated than that.
The easiest way I know to explain how this works is if I describe two common profiles of people that we see coming into XPX all the time. One person will walk in the door and they'll say, "How quick will it be for me to get new business here?" The second person is actually an example of a woman that I met recently at one of our Chapter meetings in Connecticut. She walked in the door and her eyes lit up and she said, "This is going to be an amazing resource for my clients. There are just so many different people with different talents here." You don't have to guess who's going to stay and who's probably going to get more business out of the network. It's going to be the person who's going to give because giving to get is a really important way that the world works.
Start your ideal network with the right intention. Plan to give first.
If people believe in what you're doing, they're much more likely to participate and give their all. There’s been extensive research about the power of purpose and engagement in corporations. This tie is even more important in networks and volunteer situations. People have to have a shared purpose in order to engage with your network.
At XPX, we started out declaring our purpose with our name: Exit Planning Exchange. Over time, we’ve continued to refine this. The focus (was and still is) exit planning. But we have come to see that a focus on exit planning is really about maximizing the potential of private companies in the lower middle market. Our members focus on this segment because it's good business but also because it makes them feel good. Helping these companies helps the owners, the employees and the local community. So over time we've distilled our purpose down to yes, it's about exit planning, but what it's really about it's about bringing professionalism, collaboration and education to the heart of the middle market. That speaks volumes to our members.
For your ideal network, take the time to define and communicate your purpose. This is why people will join and why they’ll stay.
If you understand your purpose really well, then there will be an obvious group of people who should definitely be in the room. But we’ve learned that you don’t want to stop there. You’ll want to think broadly enough to create a diverse network.
If we had taken our purpose and the network itself very literally, then we would only have people who help companies prepare a formal exit plan. What we've really realized is, yes, we want those people in the room. But there are so many other people who are so critical to the formation and execution of an exit plan. And they should also be in the room.
I often use the analogy of the pieces of the puzzle. Each of us has a deep expertise in one thing or another but each of us is only a piece of the puzzle. The more we understand how we fit in with the other pieces and what the whole puzzle can and should look like, the better we're going to be able to help our clients in their own challenges and opportunities. Today, our chapters include advisors from 12 different professions with over 70 areas of expertise and experience across 20 different industries. It’s an extremely diverse group of people. But everyone in the room has the same client profile. So it exposes our members to a lot of people that they might not see on a regular basis otherwise.
As you consider who should be in your ideal network, I’d urge you have a strong definition of who should be in the room. But think broadly and find ways to stay connected with the full group.
Is it enough to identify network members by market focus, profession or area of expertise? The answer is no. The people participating in your network also need to be able to relate to your values and culture.
We saw some repeated behavior patterns at XPX from the beginning. In recent years, we started recording these on paper. We ended up calling them Advisor Principles. If you look at our website now, the five principles are scrolling on the top right hand corner of just about every page: collaboration, client first, thinking long-term considering the human factor and always be learning.
Our Chapter launch in Atlanta was a great example of the power of having these values so clearly communicated. Over 80 people signed up immediately and they had to close registration three weeks before they even started. And they were the right people. As we went around the room and people talked about what was important to them, they were using words like authenticity and trust and collaboration. It was clear that the founders of the Chapter had done a great job. The people in the room shared the XPX Principles.
For your ideal network, take time to identify and communicate your values—and then look for people who share them.
A few years back, I was a member of a professional networking group. The lesson that stuck with me most from that group was that they would say that you had to go through a progression from knowing somebody to liking them and trusting them. In their case, they did that by helping people get to know each other on a very personal level.
In our case, we found that the path to genuine connections was our programming and professional learning. One of my favorite stories from our network is about a young professional who was based in Philadelphia. One day, our Chapter Administrator, Angie Ellis, called me and said, "There's a gentleman who has gone to a meeting at just about every Chapter across the Northeast in the last six or eight months." I gave him a call and he explained that as he traveled around for his job, he would make a point to visit a market when there was an XPX meeting. He explained, “At an XPX meeting, I don't just get business cards, I'm learning from people and I'm learning how they think.” And I thought, “Wow that that's a real connection, isn't it?”
In your ideal network, you’ll want to find a way to orchestrate opportunities for genuine connections, not just for swapping business cards.
How to create genuine connections? The key is some type of learning. It may be learning about someone as a person or some aspect of their professional lives.
For some networks, it may be formal learning. In the very beginning, we talked a lot about whether XPX should be creating our own content. When we decided against it, some of the early founders decided they didn't want to stick around because that wasn't of interest to them. As it turned out, a number of organizations did take this route and today provide organized exit planning training and certification programs with their own content. It’s an important contribution to the overall market. It just wasn’t for us.
In contrast, one of our early founders talked a lot about how at XPX “the genius is in the membership.” I’m going to share what I know and I also want to hear what you know and how you think. Chapters facilitate this two-way learning through structured programs with experts and business owners as well as case studies, round tables and social activities.
In building your own ideal network, be clear what kind of learning will support your purpose and drive the best outcomes for your members.
You can reinforce this knowledge exchange by shining a light on those who share and give.
XPX is a formal organization so we have speakers, moderators, volunteers and Chapter leaders. All these people get attention at live meetings. We also use online ways of highlighting people such as our LinkedIn XPX page, our newsletter and Owners’ Academy, which is built from member content using the Wild Apricot association management platform. Videos are especially powerful. One video we posted on LinkedIn recently was shared over a thousand times, which was a great number for us. All this gives visibility to our members. It helps them feel valued and important. And it ensures that the broader network will see their contributions.
Your ideal network should help shine the light on your members’ successes.
This is related to Lesson #1 about the right intentions in starting a network. But it deserves its own discussion because it’s a value that all good networks share. You have to give to get.
We actually confirmed this through research we did in collaboration with a company called Hinge Marketing. We did an extensive survey of all of the people on our list and got some incredible data about why people make referrals and what they're looking for. One of the key pieces of data that stuck with me was that the people who received the highest volume (over 20 in six months) were also the same people who gave the highest number of referrals (at similar levels). These are the power users in our network.
These kinds of giving relationships can be one to one. To encourage this kind of behavior, recognize it by letting the beneficiaries of help thank the givers. You can do this by telling stories about who helped whom. If you hold formal meetings, invite people to stand up and thank others in the network who have helped them in some way. It’s a powerful way to encourage the best behavior.
You can also give by sharing/contributing on line. You can share your own content or you can share somebody else's content. If it’s from a a contact you know, obviously, that's a way to shine light on them. If there's something that's interesting to you and you've learned from, then you absolutely should be sharing it on platforms like LinkedIn. (If you don't know how to do that, you can check a great little video we made for our members that shows your options for sharing things out to your network)
Whatever the medium, encourage and recognize selfless giving to create your ideal network.
Of course, the ultimate way be more visible in the network is to step up as a leader or a volunteer. You want to encourage others to participate and support your network. This means you’ll have to give up some control. But the members of your network will feel more invested in the health of the group.
XPX is build as a group of independent organizations. Each local Chapter is self governing. But we also connect the Chapters together in what we call our Leadership Collaborative. Through an on-line portal and periodic web meetings, leaders of all the Chapters make group decisions on issues that affect the entire network. We make it a practice to consult the entire network on all key decisions. This increases ownership and has helped us stay on the same page across multiple geographies.
Once you have your ideal network up and running, don’t assume that you’re in charge. Find ways to involve the members in collective decisions.
It’s important to recognize that our journeys never end. Markets change. The competition changes. The needs of your network members change. You have to change with it.
The Leadership Collaborative has been key to our ability to innovate and adapt. I have so many stories about ideas that have been generated, innovations that started in one place and then bounced around the network, getting better and better over time. Examples include programming types, messaging, and member acquisition strategies.
This structure has been key to growth in our network of local exit planning associations with the shared values and successes that I’ve described above. We've made some mistakes along the way. We had one early Chapter shut down. We were slow to get our web and systems optimized. But we keep talking about what we are doing, listening and learning from each other. At a full network level, the Leadership Collaborative has been key to this but it’s also the case at individual Chapters. We try to learn from our mistakes and continue to build a better and healthier network.
Your ideal network can start strong and get even better as time goes by—if you build continuous improvement into your approach.
I hope these 10 Lessons help you find ways to build your own ideal network.
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