The benefits are immense, there are more opportunities than ever, yet too many businesspeople wander through the realm of networking with darn little skill and less preparation. Business is all about whom you know — and how well you get to know them. “Most folks enter into a networking event like jumping into the ocean,” says 25-year veteran financier and business coach Sal Levatino. “They see it as something that happens to them, rather than a situation they can purposely impact and obtain required results.”

Those who would like to paddle their own boat more powerfully through their next networking event may want to attend Leva­tino’s talk, “Networking With a Purpose,” at Intelligent Office’s Lunch and Learn Seminar on Thursday, May 14, at noon at 300 Carnegie Center, Suite 150. Cost: $10. Register online at eventbrite.com or call 609-786-2400.

Levatino, who has spent much of his career delving into and directing high-level institutional finance, grew up where the money is: New York City. From his U.S. postal carrier father, he learned the benefits of diligence and tenacity. From Brooklyn’s St. Francis University he learned the fiscal basics, earning his bachelor’s in accounting in 1983. Emigrating to Chicago, Levatino joined Munich American Reinsurance as an auditor. When that firm created the new American Reinsurance division, Levatino returned to New York, managing the audit team, and garnering his MBA from Pace University’s Lubin School of Business.

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, American Reinsurance opened up Capital Markets, a new commercial investment house, with Levatino as CFO. Here he played with, and guided, finance’s big boys: institutional investors seeking some portfolio diversification for their wide-ranging funds. “One of our primary instruments was catastrophe bonds,” recalls Levatino. “These were not funds for the faint of heart or for amateurs.”

In essence, the institution buying a catastrophe bond was investing in insured capital and was betting that three major hurricanes would not wipe out all its funds. The advantage lay in the bonds not being correlated to any other market fluctuation. So it offered a nice diversification benefit. The troubling side, however, was that the entire investment could literally be swept away with the storms. Caveat emptor.

Six years ago, Levatino shifted his own direction and bought an ActionCOACH franchise. “Being a business coach is more of a shift in method,” he explains. “I have always liked solving business problems and helping people. So now I get to do it a little more personally.”

Levatino mentors his clients to approach a networking event just like any other business project: with outlined goals and with a structure that extends both before and after the brief hours of meet-and-glad-handing.

Mind-setting. Why in heavens name are you going to this networking event? Thoughtless answer: to drink mediocre wine and have a few laughs. Most typical answer: to make a sale. Levatino shakes his head. “People do not go to networking events to buy, so why foolishly try to sell them something?”

Networking events are marketing forums. So plan your reasonable objective, e.g., make people in my industry aware of my presence and my firm. This goal makes sense because awareness is the primary aim of most folks at these events. Next, to accomplish this goal, write down a list of those you would like to meet. If you don’t have specific names, list people in certain positions or types of companies that might make good contacts.

Finally, think about what you need to say to accomplish this goal. Remember, you are a person meeting another person for the first time. You are striving to perhaps make a date in the future, not planning the number of children you will have after the wedding. After you have sculpted a few introductory lines, why not test out your approach on an honest, non-business acquaintance? Invite this friend to critique your message and your overall presence.

“One of the best training methods is to go to a mall and watch people buying and selling in stores,” says Levatino. “Look and see whose body language is saying that they are approachable — who is fending off all approaches.” Then, test and examine your own body language.

Out in the crowd. Enter with the attitude of an individual seeking to meet — not to seize. Do float like a social butterfly. Spend a few minutes, and move on. Do not cluster with friends for half an hour. Fun as chatting with old buddies may be, it is scarcely the optimum method of igniting business growth.

“Perhaps the worst and most frequent sin committed at networking events is verbal vomit,” says Levatino. As a coach, clients often call upon him to assess their performance at networking events. “It’s tragic to see,” he says. “The person walks up to some potentially valuable contact with a scared look on his face and immediately burbles forth his entire list of assets and products in 30 seconds.” The poor recipient of this tirade may not even know this blithering speaker’s name. And probably doesn’t want to.

More effective by far is the individual who introduces himself, asks a cogent question of this potential contact, and seeks to learn about her and her company. All the while, consider if this is the type of individual with whom you would enjoy working in the future. If so, and when the occasion arises, present a business card and simply suggest a brief meeting at a later date. (Business cards are best given singly, after a mutual connection has been made, rather than to be doled out like a black-jack dealer in a casino.)

With each new encounter, Levatino advises that one pause and gauge before plunging in to the conversation. Watch and discern: what is the physical space this person enjoys? Does their conversation indicate that they are a straight-to-the-bottom-line type, or do they want details? Is their body language saying that they are open to new people? Always be ready to walk away if the mood just doesn’t feel right.

Followup and assessment. Business cards are a license. By passing one out, it is assumed that the recipient has the right to make further connection via social media and by adding that name to newsletter mailing lists and other data files. Such layered efforts of continuing the connection are a necessary part of awareness generation. It helps to establish levels of response, e.g., everyone met is placed on my newsletter, LinkedIn, and tweet list; the top three receive a follow up E-mail, and the top two are worthy of a personal phone call and meeting invitation.

One of the most vital and most neglected elements of Levatino’s networking strategy is that of setting up an assessment structure. At the end of the evening, when you sit in the office with your tie loosened, review the achievements, ask yourself how close you have come to your goals. Your strategy may demand that you need to meet, say, 10 new people each week, figuring that two will develop into real leads.

Placing this event’s results against these numerical requirements offers a quantifiable measurement. Additionally, what piqued your interest — and whose interest did you pique? You will probably come home with a joyous feeling of well being, but again Levatino asks, what part of my networking goals have I accomplished? What do I need to change to better that success record?

By total chance, this writer will soon be joining Levatino at a networking event. And to be honest, he now has me feeling twinges of stage fright. I hope I will do everything correctly in this expert coach’s eyes. Ah well, maybe if I just relax and cross the threshold intending to make a few good friends, I’ll be all right. I’ll leave worrying about making sales for another day.

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