The Practice Innovation Lab held during the 2017 AIA Young Architects Forum was co-organized by the author and encouraged attendees to network and think beyond design as a business model.
Wanda Lau The Practice Innovation Lab held during the 2017 AIA Young Architects Forum was co-organized by the author and encouraged attendees to network and think beyond design as a business model.

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (Back Bay Books, 2002), I would be considered a “connector.” I’ve been in the industry nearly two decades, with about 15 years serving on different AIA committees at all levels. As a business school graduate and contributing writer to several publications, I seek out individuals and organizations thinking about the future of architecture and how practice needs to adapt. I enjoy connecting people within my network because, while the design profession is relatively small, the number of us thinking about the evolution of practice is even smaller. Relationship building has been critical to my own growth, professionally and personally. My best connections keep me excited about the industry, challenge my viewpoints, and have become incredible mentor and advocates—and I take pride in cultivating my network.

Which is why I was taken aback by the flurry of cold emails and messages I received from firm principals and senior designers almost immediately upon updating my LinkedIn profile with my new role as the inaugural senior experience designer at Slack, the fast-growing tech company in San Francisco. Since I had moved to the client side three years ago, my ability to hire architects was nothing new. So why the widespread attention? Perhaps it was Slack’s recent IPO?

The myriad mindless messages I received in response to my new position truly left a bad taste in my mouth. Business school graduates know that networking is fundamental: Universities want to promote what percentage of their alumni have gone on to find successful jobs, and building relationships enhances that stat. Literally, Networking 101 is built into B-school orientation.

But designers could certainly do much better when they reach out. To make the process more palatable to both you and your networking target, I offer five recommendations for developing professional relationships.

Look for Mutual Connections
Regardless of your age or experience, leverage the resources that exist in your network. People are more receptive to an email that comes from someone they know—or even someone who knows someone they know—than from a stranger. This validates a good connection and assures the recipient that the contact will be deeper than a superficial ask for new work. The architecture world is not that big.

It’s Not About You
The first outreach should never be about your needs: It’s always about theirs. Do not fish for information in the first contact; instead, be specific about why you want to talk or, at the very least, if you’re requesting their particular experience and viewpoint on your own work. If you explicitly want to talk about my new job, then I will shelve your request.

Simplify Your Ask
Most people will be happy to talk for 15 minutes on a topic they are passionate about—just make sure you know what that topic is. I have had more success asking for a 15-minute phone conversation than an in-person sit-down. Even a coffee meetup means you are asking someone to take time out of their day, go to a place out of their routine, and commit to a conversation that they may not be excited about. Fifteen minutes first. Then maybe coffee.

Be Patient
Relationships take time, trust, and nurturing. A milestone in a person’s career is a good reason to reach out or pick up a conversation with a connection you haven’t talked to in a while. As with personal relationships, it takes time to develop professional confidantes.

Google Yourself
Leverage technology but be mindful of your own profile. Whether you are building your own network or on the receiving end of a cold email, people are going to research who you are. Clean up your public personas and make sure they reflect your professional self.

About 10 years ago, I picked up a great book on social media marketing for AEC professionals. I wanted to meet the author and was excited to discover she was running a workshop at the local AIA component. I made the workshop but had to run immediately after the event without speaking with her. My few shared connections with her on LinkedIn were merely acquaintances to me—so I took a chance and messaged her directly. In my email, I explained that I had attended her workshop, had questions about specific points she made, and was interested on her take on the profession’s need to be more strategic about outreach. I closed by asking for a 15-minute call to learn more and added that my then-employer needed help.

Fast-forward a decade and we have given several talks together on positioning firms for the future. We meet at least quarterly to catch up on everything from family to opportunities, and I consider her an incredible mentor and friend. She has opened many doors for me, connected me with key individuals during my job hunts, and has written several recommendation letters. Meanwhile, I’ve helped her build bridges to clients and even asked her to come work for my firm.

Research has found benefits in network building and nurturing as well. For example, a team of German scholars report in their 2019 paper “The Relationship between Networking, LinkedIn Use, and Retrieving Informational Benefits” that people with stronger networks leverage social media accounts and the internet to actively manage their relationships and to keep tabs on their networks’ advancements in the industry. The study also found a positive correlation between those who scored well as networkers and their career outcomes.

So the next time you reach out to someone, cold or warm, be authentic and be yourself. My professional network is the backbone of my career. Though I have landed in a positive place, I continue growing my network to challenge myself as an individual and to improve my approach to work. Business development and job opportunities may arise as side benefits, but they are never the starting point.