Carole Stone’s face may not be a familiar one. But if you’ve set your heart on reaching the top of the tree then she has what you want: that most elusive of qualities – influence.
It’s not that Carole Stone has invested in the right dotcom start-up, nor does she move millions around the City or head up a corporation. Her influence comes from who she knows and her work is bringing people together in an informal, social setting so that they can win friends and new business contacts.
This former BBC Any Questions producer is a self-confessed people-addict who came to prominence recently through her book Networking: the art of making friends. In it she expounds her ideas on how to make friends and contacts.
She has a simple, even home-spun, approach: ‘For me, business and personal life come together. I often find that people I meet in a personal way become people that I do business with and people that I do business with become friends. And my philosophy is that if you go about your business looking positively towards people thinking “there’s a potential friend there” as well as a potential contact, bringing people together and not being possessive about your contacts, you find that in an odd way more business and more referrals come through this sideways-on approach.’
And if you think that becoming well-connected really can’t be that simple – and certainly doesn’t, or even shouldn’t, involve words like ‘fun’ or ‘pleasure’ – then think again.
Stone has plenty of advice for getting started, making small talk, surviving snubs and even organising your own ‘salons’ – her trademark regular drinks evenings at her Covent Garden flat. It’s nothing fancy or complicated, she insists. It’s just a matter of letting people know that you’re at home or in a wine bar, or in a function room at your office at a regular time, perhaps once a month.
‘You haven’t got to wait until you’ve got interesting friends or a wonderful home to invite them to or an office with every drink imaginable: a glass of wine and you. All they want is to meet other people; everyone wants to meet other people,’ she says.
Stone’s message is that widening our network brings rewards for our personal and business lives. She’s driven by her interest in meeting people and making friends.
‘I can’t resist putting people together. I’m always thinking “you should meet so and so” and that’s why my parties and my salons have developed.’
The trouble is that we tend to be over-awed by business receptions. ‘We often go to things because we feel we ought to and then we don’t do justice to them,’ she admits.
The crucial thing is to make sure that you go ‘with a smile on your face’ and that you give it your best shot. Better to come away having been snubbed, she believes, than having failed to make contact with anyone.
‘Basically we’re all worried about the same things. Most of us are quite shy. And if you are a bit vulnerable and you approach someone and say “gosh, I’ve walked around the room twice, I don’t know anyone here, do you mind if I stop and talk to you for a bit” most people are quite relieved themselves.’
This is not to say that she adopts a random approach to networking and socialising. She’s highly organised. ‘Whenever I go anywhere, particularly a conference or seminar or even a social gathering, I take great care to make sure that I’ve got a list of the guests going if that’s possible.
And then, rather like an auction, I circle the names of the people I want to meet, and then I make sure I do. If I can, for a lunch or a dinner, I make sure I get CVs in advance even. So that you can do people the courtesy of doing some homework and learning a bit about them beforehand.’
She has some basic rules: try not to get trapped with someone – it’s fine to move on as long you don’t leave someone on their own. Don’t whatever you do sit down. This is her ‘sin of sins’.
Most important is the debriefing. When you get a card scribble down some details about that person: where you met, what you discussed, what common concerns you discovered. Stone enters these details into her database straight after the event. And it has to be correct. Spell names correctly, include information about titles, OBEs and so on.
After the event, write and thank your host. If you invite someone you met there to an occasion you are organising, invite your original host too, or at least let them know that you’ve continued the connection. ‘It’s just common decency,’ she adds.
This all takes diligence, but the proof of its effectiveness is her database – an awesome 16,000-strong – and in Stone’s current business work. She’s retained by chief executives who ask her to organise and host regular lunches, inviting a mix of people who they might not otherwise meet.
This all sounds rather American. In fact Stone’s approach has proved a novel one in New York where she’s just held her first few salons. The business community there – well-versed in working the room – couldn’t understand at first how mixed groups could prove beneficial. But now they’ve started to enjoy the lack of pressure to do business at each and every opportunity.
And if there’s to be one British export to the US this year – perhaps it should be this one: take time out to socialise and more work and pleasure will come your way.
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