Kent Lewis is CMO of Deksia
Can you share a little about what makes you an authority on building a great network?
I founded a networking organization in Portland, pdxMindShare, in 1999. While the group has evolved over the years, it is now primarily an online community, with a LinkedIn Group with over 12,000 members. Over the years, MindShare has helped me grow my network, connect other professionals with each other and place talent in companies looking for specific skillets.
How important is networking for professional success, and why?
I believe you're only as good as your network. Over the years, I've been seasoned professionals struggle to find a new job after layoffs, as they haven't built or curated a professional network. My network has been invaluable in building my career, as I haven't had to seek a job for over 23 years. My network has brought opportunities to me.
What's your usual ice-breaker question when meeting someone for the first time?
I've honed my question over decades of hosting pdxMindShare networking events. I learned that employment status doesn't correlate to someone's happiness. Instead of asking if someone is happily employed or unemployed, I simply ask "What's your story?" That way, they can respond by sharing whatever information is most helpful and relevant in that situation.
How do you approach networking differently when you're meeting someone in person versus virtually?
Unlike in-person conversations that flow relatively naturally and non-verbal cues can help direct the discussion, I've found virtual conversations require more effort and attention. I tend to ask more questions, even if they appear to be more obvious on the surface, in order to frame up the conversation and get to know someone in a more structured basis.
What are some common mistakes people make when trying to build their professional network, and how can they avoid them?
The greatest mistake I see people make is taking from their network more than they give. My mantra with networking is to figure out what people need and try to help them get it, through my network. I like to build a bank of "chits" that I plan never to redeem, but when I need a favor or answer to a question, my network is always there for me.
Have you noticed any differences in the types of relationships you build through in-person versus virtual networking? If so, can you describe those differences?
From my experience, in-person relationships build more quickly and go deeper than virtual relationships. Virtual relationships tend to be more surface level, but you can maintain a much larger virtual network, so it's quantity vs. quality.
What are some strategies you've found effective for building rapport and establishing trust with someone you've only just met?
To build rapport quickly, I like to find out something personal about someone I've just met that we either share in common (hobbies, interests). Finding a common bond can be very powerful and helps me remember who the person is (Chuck the runner, Matt the whisky enthusiast, etc.) and quickly revisit our common interest down the road.
How can someone use social media and online networking to expand their professional network?
Social media can be very effective in terms of identifying and connecting with others that share a discipline (i.e. marketing), job title or other areas of interest (i.e. ChatGPT). For professionals, the #1 social platform is LinkedIn by a long shot. Other platforms can provide similar value, however. Twitter has a large user-base and Facebook's Groups feature creates community for like-minded individuals. Platforms like Reddit also provide community around shared interests.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to networking and trying to make connections in their industry?
I recommend building a network in a new industry, starting with influencers. Use Google search and social media platforms to identify industry thought leaders you can follow and try to engage with over time. From there, work your way outwards in concentric circles until you've met anyone of consequence in that industry. I can take a lifetime.
The best way to network a business, based on my experience, is to join local and industry trade associations. That may include Chambers of Commerce, Rotary, etc. As a digital marketer based in Portland, there was no industry association, so I co-founded one (SEMpdx.org). I’ve also joined organizations to help grow myself and my business as an entrepreneur, like Entrepreneurs’ Organization (eonetwork.org).
Beyond joining organizations, I also recommend networking through charity work, which may include pro bono and in-kind work for non-profits. It’s a great way to network while doing good. In my case, doing pro bono work for MercyCorps led to three large non-profit clients.
If you don't find a networking community you like (online or offline) create your own. In 1999, I knew a handful of Portland professionals and felt the would benefit from knowing each other, so I created pdxMindShare. In late 2001, I expanded the reach and formalized monthly networking events. While the physical events were suspended for a few years, they are back as of 2023, building off an online presence. Along those lines, it’s much easier to create a networking group from scratch by leveraging existing social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook Groups. Creating and curating your own group can expand your visibility and geographic reach. For example, the pdxMindShare LinkedIn Group has over 12,000 members now.