Interacting with others in different situations is not as easy as it seems because people vary. Robbie Samuels, a relationship-based business strategist, introduces us to the different ways people interact at events through his bestselling book called Croissants Vs. Bagels. Recognized as a “networking expert” by Inc., Harvard Business Review Ascend, and Lifehacker, Robbie redefines networking and encourages people to stop wasting their time networking and start building meaningful relationships instead. He discusses the three common complaints people have about networking, the downside of being a unicorn, and how to handle bagels versus croissants.
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Croissants Vs. Bagels: Building Meaningful Relationships with Robbie Samuels
Our guest is Robbie Samuels, who’s a keynote speaker and relationship-based business strategist. He’s been recognized as a networking expert by no less than Harvard Business Review and Lifehacker. He’s the author of the bestselling book, Croissants vs. Bagels: Strategic, Effective and Inclusive Networking at Conferences, and has been profiled in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes and Fast Company. His clients include associations in Corporate America like Marriott and General Assembly. He’s been featured in several books, one including Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It by our mutual friend and former guest, Dorie Clark. He has guest lectured at many educational institutions including Harvard. He is the host of his own podcast called On the Schmooze, which features his network strategies. I’ve been lucky enough to be a guest on that. I couldn’t wait to have him on the show. Welcome, Robbie.
Thank you so much for having me, John.
I always like to ask my guest to take us back to their own story of origins and yours is going to be interesting. Were you an outgoing kid or were you shy? How did you get into being this expert in helping people connect and become networking?
I have never been accused of being a wallflower. I am very much an outgoing extrovert. I get energy from being around people. The way I got into this is that I was running a meetup group that grew to thousands of members and hosted hundreds of events. About a year in, I brought the regulars out for coffee and said, “What do you love about this space?” They told me how welcoming we were. They love coming back. They love the people they were meeting. I said, “I need you to be a clique that’s not cliquey.” They were like, “What does that mean?” I said, “Come fifteen minutes early. Greet people who arrive, help hand out name tags. We’ll do all those things. Wander the room and make sure people are comfortable.” That’s when I got a lot of deer in headlights because the people I was talking to, 70% to 80% of them were shy and/or introverted. It did not come naturally to them to do the thing that I was asking of them. Even though they loved the idea, it made them feel nervous. That’s where I did some one-on-one coaching. It led to me doing a workshop and that’s several years ago. That’s where this all grew out of, this idea of how do you create leadership qualities from folks that didn’t think they had it in them to have a host of mindset.
We want to be a clique but not be cliquey. I instantly thought of clicking on something. I bet you’re talking about cliques that used to form in high school, for example. You were either a jock or you were this or you’re that. What’s the inspiration for writing the book? Where did you get that great title?Think of yourself as being resource rich. Click To Tweet
Croissants vs. Bagels is a concept of what I’ve been speaking on since almost the beginning. I had tested the idea through that group and Dorie Clark wrote about it in Stand Out. That was the piece that stood out for her. People started to ask her. When she would present on her books, she would have a slide about me, which she still does this. People would come up to her and say, “Does Robbie have a book?” I didn’t have a book. I’m also a speaker. It’s like a necessary requirement to have a book. I knew I had content, but I being an extrovert, didn’t find it easy to have the discipline to write down everything, sit quietly and do all of that.
Finally, I set a deadline. I had it done in July 2017. I was struggling with the title because that’s an important piece of this. I talked to Dorie and she said, “You have to call it Croissants vs. Bagels.” I was excited about the idea because it’s a concept that’s sticky. In case people reading are now curious, the bagels are those tight networking circles that are impossible to break into, those shoulder-to-shoulder huddle that we hate seeing at conferences and events. If you open up your body language, if you’re in that circle and you make space for others to join, you’re creating a croissant and it’s the croissants that we want to look for.
They’re a little softer, buttery, French, sophisticated and all that good stuff. A lot of people have a negative connotation around the word networking because they perceive it to be either a waste of time or a bunch of people pushing business cards on each other. How do you redefine it?
It’s interesting that you say that because there was a study by Northwestern and Harvard that determined that people do find it icky. It makes them feel dirty. The networking that study was testing was people who were thinking about it as a transactional piece like, “What can I get?” They were going in with a need. They were trying to get things. The people in that study who did not experience it in an icky factor where the senior executives because when they show up, they do not need things. They’re showing up to offer. They have all kinds of resources, referrals, connections, introductions, mentorship and budgets. They’re showing up resource-rich. I believe all of us can think of ourselves as resource-rich. We all have connections and opportunities to support each other. Even if you’re looking for a job, which is one of those moments when you do have a distinct need.
It’s about finding the right job and the right fit. For the right hiring manager, you’re a dream. It’s about having that in you and thinking, “What’s my experience, passion and how do I present myself?” That is about having a solid pitch, like saying, “I need a job in nonprofit, rings no bells.” My database comes back to null. If you were clear with me about who you were, what your passions were, I could think of people to introduce you to. It’s a win-win for everyone. For me, it’s about relationship building. I want people to stop wasting their time networking and start building great relationships. Most of the time, people aren’t thinking about the real value of being present in a room with others.
Your book, Croissants vs. Bagels, you talk about three common complaints and nobody loves three problems and three solutions more than I do. Let’s attack that from that. The first complaint is meeting strangers is scary. Your solution to that is?
First, you should remember that your best friends started out as strangers. It’s a good reminder. If you think about it, you’ve already had some practice doing this. I’m also doing some research ahead of time so you know who to keep an eye out for what you might have in common with people, conversation starters, things that you can congratulate people on, compliment people on because you know a little bit what’s going on in their life. It makes them less scary, less of a stranger and more of someone that you haven’t met yet.
The second one, which is a big one for most people, is networking is exhausting. How do you help people not feel exhausted or even anticipate the exhaustion so that they avoid it?
This is definitely true for introverts. I could go for days meeting people. It doesn’t mean I’m effective. I might be hugging and air-kissing the whole room and not necessarily making the right connections. For introverts who need to think about how to manage their time and their energy in particular, it’s about knowing what you need to do in the time that you have. If I could tell an introvert, “If you dedicated an hour at the event, had all of your needs met, you did everything you need to do and you can go home after an hour, head held high, not feel like you’re slinking away, would you want to do that?” They’re like, “Yes.” I’m like, “There are a few hours with a prep that you’re going to do before you even get to the event. In that time that you do have the energy that you have, you’re super present. You know exactly who you want to talk to. You know what you’re going to talk about. That you’re not going to show up and hide in the corner. That hour is wasted and you could have stayed home and messaged the people on Facebook. If you don’t talk to people and you write them a message afterward, it’s not a follow-up message, it’s an email.
I love that you give people an exit strategy and that requires some preparation. People, especially if you’re introverted, would rather spend three hours preparing for who they want to talk to and meet and what they’re going to say. That one hour is limited and you can go, “I can survive anything for an hour.” The other big one is people think it’s a waste of time. You have a whole thing about let’s be strategic, which allows us to be effective. You also put in the word inclusive. How does that work so that we don’t waste time?There is a difference between collecting business cards vs. building relationships. Click To Tweet
A lot of times when we head to a conference, which is one of the reasons I talked about that in the book is that we have the experience of going to conferences and organizing all the logistics to get there, travel, hotel, booking the ticket for the actual event. We’re not necessarily clear on the intentions we have around the event. In some way we’re going for the content, that’s what’s driving us to go. You can get content from the comfort and safety of your home. You don’t have to venture across the country to go meet people. If you’re going to do that, leave your house and go across the country, you should be there for connections, not content.
The wasting of our time is when we get to the end of a long weekend, if we’re a shy person, we may not have talked to many people and thought, “This was wasting my time. I’m exhausted.” If we’re outgoing, maybe we’d collect a stack of business cards, but we didn’t prioritize one over the other. They’re all like in a stack, which means they’re not going to be easy to follow-up with, which means we’re probably not going to follow-up, which means we’re thinking, “Whatever. This has wasted my time.” A lot of this is clear. Before you even get to the event, write your follow-up email draft. You’re not sending this to anyone. You are getting clear on why this event, in particular, out of all the events you could’ve gone to, who you’re trying to meet? What inspiration you’re looking for? What information you’re looking for? What can you offer this space?
What is the value that you’re bringing to the space? Write yourself a little draft now you’re going to personalize it when you get home. The other thing I suggest doing is on your calendar putting an hour after the event when you’re going to do the follow-up messages. If you have the draft and you’ve scheduled an hour, within two days of coming back from your event. During the event, you track the cards that were a higher priority conversation, maybe a little more in-depth, a little more engaged. Sometimes we’re standing in those tight bagels circles and someone starts handing out their card and everyone starts handing them out. It feels like you’re in a poker game.
Those shouldn’t have equal weight to the conversation you had for twenty minutes over lunch. I like to because we’re in Western culture, turn the corner of the cards that I want to keep track of. I always carry a pen. I like to jot a little note about the conversation. When I get home, I drop all the cards on the table, the ones that turn corners stand out to me. I have my draft. I have my time set aside. I’m likely to send the messages I need to. Everybody gets a LinkedIn invitation. Those small number of people will get a personalized email message as well. It won’t feel like a waste of time if we have some strategy, thoughtfulness and an intention before we even get there.
I love how you’re pre-loading and post-loading the whole concept. Creating a draft is so much easier to edit than starting from scratch that helps the momentum. If it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done. The need to put that hour in a day or two after the event is crucial. One of your quotes in here that’s one of my favorites is “There’s a difference between collecting business cards and building relationships.” Can you give us a story of someone that you met at a convention that turned into a relationship and that paid off for both of you?
I was at a big event in the Boston area where I live. It invited a lot of different sectors. It wasn’t nonprofit, business, government or education, it was all of them, which is one of the most difficult spaces to navigate. You’re trying to find your people. We were all there because we love the city. We were a part of this big campaign they were doing. I first told people, at the time I was working in nonprofit so people would turn and point, “No, you should meet so and so.” I’d say, “I do advocacy work.” They would point me to someone who does advocacy work. I’d say, “I do this kind of work.”
Someone said, “You should meet, she’s not here, let me tweet at her.” This guy tweets an introduction to this other woman, who I run into at an event months later, and me. That’s several years ago. We have done events together. She’s hired me. I’ve supported her work. She supported my work. What’s amazing is she wasn’t even in the room. All of that transpired because I was super clear on the people I was trying to meet and use part of that big picture, who I was looking for and assumed that everybody I was talking to was a connector. In some ways that’s true, some people are, but I knew that they knew at least one other person. I wanted an introduction to another person. I hope that I would leapfrog through the event to meet the people I truly needed to. That connection has absolutely paid off.
You talk about being effective once you already have your strategy in mind, but that strategy will only get us so far. What do you mean by that?
I also realized that I might not have talked about inclusion when you asked that question. I want to dovetail into that as well because being inclusive and being strategic are tied together. If you show up at the event and you do walk up to people, but the first thing out of your mouth is something off-putting, makes them feel like in other. Here’s an example that we’ve probably all heard at least if not said, “You’re tall. How tall are you?” If you’re over twelve years old, you should probably stop saying that. It could be about hair texture, skin color, heights, accents, names, things that people get commented on all day, every day. You’re not unique for having pointed out the obvious. That calling out differences is the thing that makes people feel like, “Do I belong here? I don’t feel like I fit. Am I welcome here?” It’s not doing you any good because they may have been a great connection, but you now have fallen into the trap of what everyone always says to them. They’re not going to think highly of you or want to stay engaged.
Inclusion is a strategy, which is why make the effort of going and talking to people and saying the thing that is off-putting? Calm that inner voice and as you get to know each other, I always think at some point maybe I’ll be like trading grandma recipes. I’ll talk to them about the thing that I had noticed or they’ll also be willing to ask me as well. We don’t want to lead with the obvious difference, but instead focusing on ways to engage people and welcome them into the space. That’s the part of the strategy and also the strategy of having your email draft ahead of time, talking to hosts and organizers, and asking for introductions. These are all things, getting there early so that you’re one of the people that everyone meets as they come.There is a difference between collecting business cards versus building relationships. Click To Tweet
It can be a strategy taking on a host mindset so that as you greet people, I always think at a conference in the morning when they have coffee out. Everyone doesn’t know each other yet. They’re registered. There’s a cocktail table where you can lean with your coffee. I always stand at an empty table with my coffee. I look around and anybody who comes by, I wave them over. When I see someone trying to juggle their muffin and their coffee, I say, “Come here. You set it down right here.” Having that host’s mentality gives me an opportunity to talk to people that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise. I do that at lunchtime. I’ll start a table and waving people over from the buffet. They don’t seem like they have a place to go. For me, it means that I’m going to have interesting conversations that I may not have had the opportunity to do so.
I love what you said about to generate the host table. I would have to say, even for myself, when I’m at those events, I tend to look for a seat that’s open at a table that already has people versus I’m going to sit by myself and try to get people to join me. If nobody does, I feel like a loser. You have a different mindset. You’re like, “No, start your own table, be a host and start inviting people over.”
If you are nervous and wondering where to be in, there are people who are even more nervous is my thought. To me, I also keep an eye out for the demographic outliers as well as the physical outliers. The physical outliers are the wallflowers. If it’s your first time attending the event, I don’t recommend going and talking to wallflowers because even though it may be a great conversation, it’s going to be a super awkward ending because they don’t know anyone and you don’t know anyone. You might be like, “John, it was nice talking to you. I’m going to go to the restroom.” You’re like, “Great talking to you too. That’s a good idea. I’ll join you.” You’re like, “I was trying to get out of this conversation.” If you’re new, go and find the openings in the large groups. For someone who’s been going a few times, it’s a nice thing to go over to the people on the sides of the room and bring them in. Similarly demographic outliers, someone who’s much older or much younger, people of color in mostly white space like going and engage the person who is visibly a little different and helping them feel engaged, not othered is a nice way to continue that host mindset.
Do you have any other graceful exit strategies besides, “Excuse me, I have to go get a drink or go to the bathroom?”
My favorite way to end a conversation is dependent on whether I’m new there or I know a lot of people. If I’m new I’ll say, “I don’t know that many people here. Is there anyone you think I should meet?” Usually, there’s a little bit of brainstorming because they know a little bit about me from the conversation we’ve had. I’ll be like, “That sounds great. Would you make an introduction? Would you introduce me?” Generally, that’s like, “I see them over there.” They walk me over and I get the introduction. I thank them. They can either stay with the conversation or they mostly wander off to do their own thing. Now I had been holding my hand over to that space. I am not left to stand by myself.
The other thing I will tell you, John, is to make a note of how many people are in the circle with you. If there’s a three or four or more and you want to step away, you murmur something. You’re like, “I’m going to go,” you’re going to tap out. You’re like, “Let the person next to you know.” If there are three and one person leaves and it’s not you, now there’s two. When there’s two, you have to think are you inviting someone over? Are you coming up with some elaborate thing? Are you introducing them? Are they introducing you? Part of this is you leave before it’s time. You leave a conversation while it’s still got a lot of energy and makes them want to come and talk to you again. That’s another piece of this.
I have that philosophy with parties too, do not be the last person there when the host is saying, “We’re out of booze.” You talk about being inclusive and that there’s a downside to being a unicorn. Can you first define what a unicorn is? What is the downside?
You’ve heard probably the phrase “Always be yourself unless you can be a unicorn and always be a unicorn.” If you’re picturing what would a day as a unicorn be like? Is it rainbows and sunny skies? It’s probably more like, “A unicorn, I’ve never met a unicorn. Can I touch your?” All these intrusive, curious questions. A unicorn in this example are people who have that difference. It’s visible. They’re in a room that others are coming up to them and be like, “Can I touch your, can I ask you about this? I like your accent.” It can be exciting to be a unicorn, but sometimes it’s exhausting to be a unicorn because you get all these pestering curious questions that make you feel like you’re under a magnifying glass. In some ways, people are like, “I want to examine you.” That’s the downside. We’ve all experienced this to some degree or another. Some of us look like the people in the room more often than not. We also have had moments of being like, “I’m definitely the only blank here. How am I going to find people like me?”
We should call upon that to remind ourselves what it’s like to be in that space. That energy can be used to create a space where people can show up and bring more of their full selves. To clarify this for your audience, it’s not about the difference. A compliment is about something that they have chosen versus who they are. If someone has sunglasses on, a scarf, a piece of jewelry or an awesome jacket, those are compliments saying something nice. A guy has a tie that matches his shirt like a subtle connection. I love that. My dad taught me if you pick up a subtle color and a tie to match this color. I’m like, “You’ve got the style. Where do you shop?” That’s a compliment. If I said to the same guy, “You’re tall. How tall are you?” It’s not a compliment. It’s an observation and one they’ve heard before.
When you’re talking about fashion, I used to sell advertising for W Magazine, a fashion magazine. There was a phrase we had about the readers. It was, “Everyone puts on clothes, but not everyone gets dressed.” The people who read this magazine get dressed. That’s a fun way to compliment somebody who’s looking dapper, whether they’re male or female and say, “You got dressed, didn’t you?” I know you referenced that line and that’s a fun, unique way to connect with someone. Since you’re talking about your dad and you are a dad, do you have any tips for parents who might find that their child is a little introverted in school or in social situations?We don't have to be extraordinarily outgoing or an extrovert to succeed. Click To Tweet
It’s about finding those strength and working towards that. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, our children and on each other to be something that we may not. Maybe they’re not the most outgoing kid, but what do they enjoy? If they enjoy it, they’ll put energy into it. They may find leadership doing that thing which they enjoy. Leadership is something that they will take the rest of their life. They don’t have to be extraordinarily outgoing or an extrovert to succeed. There are a ton of examples of people who are quite introverted that have been enormously huge impacts on our lives and our culture. Rather than trying to make them into something that they’re not, that they feel bad about, you can perform being more outgoing. A lot of people have adapted and learn how to do that, but it’s exhausting and not very fulfilling. Instead, guide them towards the things in which they feel good about, they can excel at and help them find leadership opportunities within that space, which will give them the confidence they need to make great decisions going on in life. That’s what I hope to do for my kids is hear them and listen to what they say as opposed to trying to make them the image in which I have for them. That’s difficult as a parent, but I think it’s a good idea to have that goal.
What I find interesting is when you try to force yourself or a child to be something you’re not is exhausting. If you do the old way of networking, that’s exhausting. If you are your authentic self, you’re energized, whether you’re in a networking situation or interacting with anybody. That’s a nice little barometer to see if you’re in the zone or not. You give these great keynotes about the art of the schmooze. Who’s your favorite audience to give this to?
My favorite audience is women at a Women’s Leadership Summit. I’ve gotten invited. I feel privileged to have been invited into that space a few times, maybe a half dozen times. It’s such a pleasure. The work that I do and how I speak about it resonates. My ideal coaching clients are entrepreneurial women in their 50s and 60s. It resonates with the corporate audience as well. Even using the word exhausted, that’s definitely a word women would use more than men for how the experience is. I’ll also make jokes and one of my earliest podcast episodes and blog posts was titled When Will Women Win the Right to Pockets?. You haven’t ever had to think about pockets then that’s a privilege in itself because women struggle with this all the time when they’re trying to get dressed in a nice way, they often have to sacrifice practical things like pockets.
The fact that I comment on that, have strategies for that, and I say things like, “It’s important to wear layers because the room is going to be freezing. The men are wearing suit coats.” The temperature is set for them. You’re in a sleeveless dress. You might want to bring something. They’re so appreciative that I’m naming that reality. I’m giving them tangible things that they can take action on. It’s not asking them to be anything other than who they are that I’m not asking them to reach outside of that. Now it’s outside their comfort zone to some degree to do some of this, but I’m not asking them to be someone else.
How do you develop such empathy for women in their 50s and 60s?
I am 45 so I am closer to that than I look perhaps. I’m also an out trans guy so I would socialize as a girl and into being a woman. I have a better understanding of that space. It also comes with the empathy I have around introverts and shy people. I’ve never been those things and yet I can still put myself in that place and appreciate where they’re coming from. I learned a lot about being a leader is often about taking a step back. I learned that by having great people around me that I wanted to listen to. If I didn’t make space for them, they wouldn’t be heard. For me, it’s been a real practice.
The reason I love working with these women is that they’re motivated. They’re at a time in their life where they want more. They’re ready to take their business to the next level, but they also have a lot of trepidation about how to do it and feel like they’re starting over. They’re a novice when they’ve got 30 plus years of experience in the world. They forget about that. They, in particular, forget that they have a professional network that will support them in whatever the next level or transition of their business is. That’s my goal is relationship-based business strategies. They do not have to start from scratch. This is not scientific but 80% of who you need to know to be successful, I believe you’ve already met.
That’s such an a-ha moment for people. First of all, it keeps it from being so overwhelming. You think, “How is it that I’ve already met this person? I haven’t thought of asking him the right question or who else they might know?” All those things take it from this overwhelming, exhausting mindset into, “I have to think about who I’ve already met.” That’s a very different proposition.
It changes what networking is because we usually think of networking as having to meet new people. That’s only about 20% of what we needed to be doing. We need to be leveraging, reviewing and rekindling connections with people that we’ve met. It could be someone from five and ten years ago that you used to work with. If you would be happy to hear from them, you should be reaching out to them. If you’d be like, “It’d be so cool to hear from them again.” I do exercises where I have my clients brainstorm twenty names of those kinds of people without any connection to the work they’re doing or how it might benefit them.
Get in the habit of reconnecting because when you do make a great connection, you’ll already have the systems in place to schedule it. You’ll know how to do a Zoom call. You might have scheduling software to make it super easy. You’ll have the mindset to say, “Let’s follow up and make this happen.” When you go to a conference, it’s more likely you’ll follow up when you’re at a meeting when you meet someone at a restaurant. It doesn’t matter where you are. You have some of the habits around that set in place. It is habit forming. We have to get into the practice of our lives.
If you have one last tip you want to leave us with about how to handle bagels versus croissants, what would it be?
When you come into the room, look for the croissants. If you haven’t done the prep, if you haven’t prewritten your email follow up message and you haven’t thought about this space, take that as the moment to do it. If you remember to look for the croissants that will have a networking moment happen a little bit of strategy session with yourself, “Why am I here? Who do I want to meet?” Even that momentary pause before you go into the room can absolutely set some intentions that will create great outcomes. I look for the croissants.
What a great takeaway message. It’s visual, it’s sticky and it reminds you to be one yourself the next time you’re at an event and help other people. Robbie, thanks so much for being a guest on the show. The book is Croissants vs. Bagels. If you want to learn more about Robbie, go to his website, RobbieSamuels.com. Thanks again, Robbie.
- Croissants vs. Bagels: Strategic, Effective and Inclusive Networking at Conferences
- Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It
- Dorie Clark – Past episode
- On the Schmooze
- When Will Women Win the Right to Pockets? – Past episode of On the Schmooze
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