Want To Know A Secret?

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with another landscape architect. We were talking about the state of our industry and the fact that we were starting to see more and more projects begin construction.

Get out there and make professional connections.

Before long, our conversation about strategies for finding new projects shifted to ASLA and the benefits--or lack thereof--of membership.

When we first started talking, his opinion of ASLA wasn’t very strong; in his words, it was “nothing more than a $375 magazine subscription” every year.

The longer we talked, the more he lamented about how he didn’t know many other landscape architects in our community and was upset that he had never been asked to collaborate on any projects with other firms. He was frustrated with his current job and said he felt as if he had reached a “dead end” at his firm.

He told me was amazed by my network of industry professionals on LinkedIn and that he wished he were as connected as I was so that he would have a better chance at finding a new job with a different firm.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this story is headed. He knew I was actively involved in our state ASLA chapter and served on the executive committee. He also knew that I collaborate with many landscape architects on volunteer projects when I have free time.

After many minutes of conversation, he finally asked me, straight up, how I developed such a strong network and what was I doing that he wasn’t.

I had a professor in college who once told me to always look for the teachable moment in every situation I encountered over the course of my career. Here I sat across from a colleague who wanted more, but either didn’t know what to do to make it happen or didn’t have the drive to take the initiative.

Right there was when I found the teachable moment.

I sat there for another few moments listening to him drone on about his lack of opportunity. I finally interrupted him and asked him if he wanted to know my secret.

In an instant, his eyes lit up. One would have thought I had just offered him the winning numbers to the lottery drawing on Saturday night.

Of course he was eager to know my secret, and he probably would have done just about anything in order to get it. But I smiled coyly and told him there was no secret.

Like all things in life, you get out of this career exactly what you put into it. Five years ago, I could have counted on both hands the number of landscape architects I knew in our community. Today, I would run out of fingers and toes many times over before I got to the end of my contact list.

There really is no secret, other than getting involved.

Five years ago, I paid $15 to attend an ASLA luncheon hosted by our chapter. Yes, it was difficult to find the money every year for my ASLA dues, but I am a professional and this is my livelihood. It is imperative to me to belong to and support our professional society.

When I attended that first luncheon, I honestly didn’t know any of the other 40-plus members in attendance. I brought five business cards with me that day, and I didn’t leave until I had five others that belonged to someone I had just met.

I made it a point to connect with the speaker that day, which coincidentally happened to be the ASLA chapter president giving a presentation on the state of the chapter. That afternoon, I sent him an email thanking him for taking the time to speak with me and asked him how I could get involved in the chapter.

He invited me to the next chapter executive committee meeting, and it was there that I volunteered to help with the events committee. Five years after that fateful day, I was the vice-president of our chapter and helping to plan the ASLA Annual Meeting and Expo that was held here in Phoenix.

No, there really isn’t any secret or magic formula. If you want to build a network of colleagues, then do it.

The next time you’re at a chapter function, get out of your chair, walk over to someone you don’t yet know, and introduce yourself. Chances are, they are probably just as nervous as you.

Back then, I was terrified of introducing myself to complete strangers who were legends in my industry. Today, however, I have no problem talking to people I don’t yet know and making new contacts. I am fortunate to consider many of them personal friends and professional colleagues.

At the risk of sounding cliché, taking that first step and introducing yourself to someone you don’t know is the hardest step you’ll ever take, but it may very well be the most important step of your entire career.

You never know just whom you might meet at a professional function.

To me, the benefits of ASLA membership far outweigh the cost of my annual membership dues, and I hope you feel the same.

Do you have any tips for building your network? If so, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to leave a comment below, send me a tweet, or even an email. I look forward to hearing from you.

Have a great weekend!

Boyd Coleman is a landscape architect in Phoenix, Arizona. He can be reached on twitter at @CDGLA or email: bcoleman001@gmail.com