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Shannon Alter, Author and Speaker, Leaders Exceed

Shannon Alter is a certified property manager, communication and presentation skills expert, author and is the founder of Leaders Exceed. She spent some time talking with The Industry Leaders about how to build a great network.

Can you share a little about what makes you an authority on building a great network?

With over 30 years of business experience I have had an opportunity to connect and network with leaders at all levels throughout my career. I’ve made some great connections, but I’ve also made some mistakes. The mistakes I’ve made are part of what makes me an expert, as I’m able to advise others what not to do. (how about: “because there is no better way to learn” vs. I’m able to advise?) As a leadership and communications expert, my goal is always to engage with others first, get my message across clearly and ensure that my body language is saying exactly what I want it to say.

How important is networking for professional success, and why?

Networking is so important to our success- one of my favorite bosses always said “Real estate is a handshake kind of business”, meaning it’s the connections that count. And this is not only true in real estate but true in any industry. It’s all about building those long term relationships and connections. I’ve been lucky to work with and speak to leaders all over the globe and one thing I’ve discovered is that no matter how many people we already know, we always have the opportunity to meet and get to know even more great people. Those relationships can last for a lifetime.

It’s about more than gaining connections to strengthen your business and/or career prospects. It’s also an opportunity to get fresh ideas. People love to hear what worked for you, what didn’t work so well and what you learned from it. When you share information, success, and challenges you have faced with your network there are always a number of different perspectives that you can gain help, inspiration, and insights from.

And there’s an unexpected bonus: Networking boosts your confidence. When you actively practice– talking with people you’ve just met, leading a meeting or speaking in front of a group, it takes you out of your comfort zone. These are skills you can use every day, personally and professionally.

Networking can also help people advance their careers. Sometimes, the key is to just show up, to be present. For example, if you belong to an industry association, go to their events, ask to be introduced. If you participate regularly at events, other leaders will get to know you. As a result, you’ll build your reputation and credibility in your marketplace.

Maybe I should have asked this first(!) but, what's your usual ice-breaker question when meeting someone for the first time?

What's your usual ice-breaker question when meeting someone for the first time?

Depending on the situation or event, I like to ask “How did you start in real estate (or another industry? I ask this question because often, people ‘fall into’ this field vs. graduating from college with a degree in it. Interesting answers are guaranteed!

If it’s a conference where there are speakers or breakouts, I could also ask “What speaker (or session did you enjoy most today?” or “I really enjoyed xxx session, did you have a chance to attend?”

How do you approach networking differently when you're meeting someone in person versus virtually?

Actually, my approach is very similar- I’m very conversational and try to be approachable, both in person and virtually. Sometimes people can feel awkward in a virtual situation, or they’re hesitant to speak up. If I have a virtual class or speaking engagement I like to do something that immediately gets them talking. It doesn’t have to be fancy or scripted- for example, I’m always on a virtual session early, so I’ll put a welcome note in the chat and ask people to let us know where they’re from, and then I start it off. It gets people engaging, which is what you want.

Of course, virtual can be more challenging, just because you may not be able to read body language completely. With my client’s permission, I require participant to leave their cameras on as this makes a big difference. Eye contact and inviting everyone to participate and engage is key, no matter what the format is.

And sometimes what’s old is new again! I thought that perhaps business cards were “out” post-pandemic but it turns out I was wrong. At the first in-person event I went to afterwards I didn’t bring any cards but I was definitely asked for them. Now, I bring the cards.

What are some common mistakes people make when trying to build their professional network, and how can they avoid them?

I think that one of the most common mistakes people make when networking is that they treat it as a selling opportunity, but networking isn’t about selling, it’s about communication. It’s about building relationships first- getting to know people and their needs. Going to a networking event and having somebody go straight into a selling spiel be slightly overwhelming and off putting. If your approach is relatable and authentic and you really listen, those strong relationships the work and opportunities will follow.

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?

Both have their pluses and minuses. I always vote for in-person first if you can, just because that eye-to-eye personal contact is key and works really well. Sometimes, virtual networking takes longer to connect because we can’t always pick up on non-verbal communication as easily. Face to face events are definitely more fun and engaging and you get to know people on a deeper, more personal level, which makes for stronger connections overall.

What are some strategies you've found effective for building rapport and establishing trust with someone you've only just met?

First, we all want to work with people we like and trust. When you’re connecting with someone new, the real keys are to be approachable, relatable, listen- and smile. Don’t be afraid to show us your personality- we want to see you.

Often, we’re interested in - and sometimes anxious about- directly offering our credibility and expertise, when what people usually appreciate first is the chance to get to know you. One of my favorite colleagues gave sage advice- he said “Truly listen. If we can both listen and hear at the same time, that’s what we’re going for.” We all know how good it feels to have somebody truly listen and hear what we are saying.

Ask engaging questions. You can have a couple of ideas in your back pocket about conversation starters you can bring up but again, the person you’re speaking to knows that you have a genuine interest in what they do. Nobody wants to feel you’re only chatting with them until somebody better comes along. And don’t forget about body language! Keep an open posture and maintain good eye contact.

I do an exercise with my workshop groups where we discuss how to find out what motivates others. Our conversation revolves around first finding common ground- the truth is, we can find commonalities with just about everyone, and that in turn builds rapport.

It doesn’t have to be work related, it could be that you both like the same comedian or you take part in a similar social activity. Finally, I would say be authentic. People can spot those who aren’t genuine, so whilst there is a temptation to fake it till you make it, especially when you’re nervous, I’d say just be yourself, you don’t have to be the loudest, most outspoken, or funniest person in the room to make a strong connection. You just have to be you.

How can someone use social media and online networking to expand their professional network?

We live in a world where people want information on demand and as somebody looking to expand your network, you want to meet people where you are. That place is social media. Social channels give your business a great platform to talk to potential customers and clients in a way that is interesting and engaging. Often people forget the social element of social media; just chatting, showing an interest, asking questions and so on. In the same way that a good face to face networking meeting is about connection rather than selling, social media is the same. If you’re interested in others, you will be seen as interesting.

As with face-to-face networking, show up online as yourself. You don’t have to reveal all of who you are, but you do need to be authentic. People buy from people. We want to see your personality. Set your own boundaries on what you feel is appropriate for your audience and what you are prepared to share. Do you want to share details of your family? Will your sense of humor be understood by your audience? If you’re using social for business purposes, it’s highly likely you’re good at what you do, so put the fears about how others might perceive you aside. Have the confidence to share your knowledge and expertise.

What advice would you give to someone who is new to networking and trying to make connections in their industry?

My top tips if you are new to networking are:

Have your elevator pitch ready.

Ask questions.

Be interested in the people you are speaking to.

Make sure you make the most of your online presence.

Do your homework before the event and pinpoint people you want to speak to

Use it as an opportunity to gain the advice of more experienced people in your field.

Help where you can- because you can.

Where should people follow you to find out more about your work?


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