It’s always wise to accept invitations to hear what people have to say to each other behind closed doors.

So earlier this week over lunch there was a fly on the back wall as a panel of Baker Tilly partners sat in front of about three dozen younger managers, sharing their wisdom about building networks of friends, clients and referral sources.

Baker Tilly, a consulting and accounting firm, took a risk even extending this invitation. On the other hand, five minutes in and it was obvious this wasn’t going to be the big reveal of some new strategy. Like a lot of other good business wisdom, much of what the partners had to say was so grounded and practical that it seemed like a close cousin of common sense.

The trick to putting this into daily practice, of course, is having the discipline to do it.

The Baker Tilly network has a global reach, with about 300 Baker Tilly staffers in the Twin Cities, not quite 250 of them in Minneapolis. That’s big enough for a broadly diversified practice of accounting and advisory services that ranks in the Top 10 of Twin Cities accounting firms, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.

Like in a lot of professional service industries, though, a firm’s brand and reputation are necessary to build the business, but they won’t be enough.

Clients often hire people they hope they will like and trust, not necessarily firms they have heard of, and lean on friends for advice on whom to pick.

Being technically skilled and hardworking in a professional-services firm might not be enough to be named a partner. Being technically skilled, hardworking and good at building a lot of trusted relationships probably will.

The meeting this week was hosted by Will Roach, who leads Baker Tilly’s business development here, but little about this session seemed like sales training. The only thing that sounded like specific business-development advice came when Minneapolis office Managing Partner Jeff DeYoung reminded any partners within earshot to make sure their referral sources become Baker Tilly’s and not just their own.

The partners covered a lot of ground, talking about everything from how to work a room at a business reception to how it’s just fine to only want to get better acquainted with people you actually like.

Don’t rely too much on LinkedIn or other technology platforms, either. “It’s still personal,” said Nicki Donlon, leader of Baker Tilly’s Minnesota nonprofits team. “It’s still in person and it’s still phone calls.”

A lot of what they talked about touched on the wisdom of volunteering at nonprofits and other community organizations. Yet if you are thinking about signing up to round out the LinkedIn profile or just to meet people, you are not thinking about it the right way.

By volunteering, you promise to help. Show up every time and raise your hand for assignments, then get them done.

How does that help build a personal network? No one fails to notice the hardworking and effective volunteer.

Start small, too, maybe by joining a nonprofit’s committee. “Get on one thing,” DeYoung said, “and do a really great job with it.”

Asked how to squeeze volunteering into an already full schedule, partner Mike McKee explained that people seem to find time to work on things they are passionate about. That makes the challenge finding a volunteer assignment that really fits with what you care about, not managing the weekly calendar.

A few other ideas seemed broadly applicable across the world of work, too, including how simple curiosity does seem to lead to new friendships and opportunities.

Everybody you will meet this week will be frustrated by something, maybe at work or with a nonprofit they are trying to help. Why not ask?

For a tax accountant at a midsize accounting firm, clients will come to trust advice about state and local taxes and ask for help preparing the tax returns. But clients have other problems that pop up every day that have nothing to do with tax compliance. No tax accountant has to be an expert to be curious about any of them.

That just may lead to one of the best things anyone working for a professional services firm can ever hear from a client: “So your firm can help us with that, too?”

Another idea that came across is how network building takes work, so make a plan and stick to it. For Donlon, this meant opening up a spreadsheet earlier in her career to start recording what she had been doing to meet people, noting whether she had met her monthly goal.

“We’re all accountants, we’re all nerdy,” she said to the room, alluding to her uncool spreadsheet. Carefully tracking her relationship building “forces me to think about it,” she added.

Maybe the best advice of all didn’t come out as a single story or sound bite, but instead as a notion that seemed to connect several ideas from this group of partners with some advice shared by DeYoung, the managing partner.

DeYoung didn’t quite say this, but many of us likely share the same hope, and that’s to meet a person or client who turns into our lifelong champion and source of advice and referrals.

Without discipline, that hope can lead to getting stuck at “if only.” If only you could figure out who your most likely champion might be out in the community. If only you could think of how you would ever meet them or who could possibly introduce you.

It’s far better to instead recognize that one good opportunity might be right in front of you, with someone you have already met. It might be a young staffer at a client company or even a new acquaintance who would really appreciate an unexpected phone call today with a little helpful advice or encouragement.

So, pick up the phone and start dialing.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302