Published on 21st August 2017 in Building Magazine, but for those that don't subscribe, below is a copy of the text.
The key to post-Brexit success for the construction industry will be our own special relationships. That’s what Lord Deben, former Conservative Party chair and secretary of state for environment, told me (and more than 70 others) at the Forum for the Built Environment’s (FBE) 70th AGM and lunch in Bloomsbury recently. It got me thinking about how wonderfully different we are in that sense.
I’d worked in various industries before starting in construction four years ago. One thing that struck me immediately is how important face-to-face relationships still are in this sector. Getting out there, attending events, making contacts. We work in a very sociable industry and we’re all the better for it.
People in other sectors regularly tell me the culture has changed. They’re largely expected to be chained to their desks and eyebrows are often raised if they spend time away from the office, even if it’s with new business prospects. Responsibility for business development seems increasingly confined to a minute proportion of staff, or worse to social media or email campaigns.
That’s not my experience of our industry. Construction is awash with opportunities to build relationships. It seems every week a new group is set up to encourage collaboration between like-minded members of the built environment. And our ability to network not only helps attract and retain clients but means we know, trust and can recommend one another, too.
So what advice do I give someone starting out? First, keep an open mind. Some events will be really useful, others won’t. But you won’t know which until you’ve tried. And as your address book grows, you’re only going to benefit.
Make the most of major conferences by remembering the preliminary and post events. Take MIPIM, the daddy of built environment events. A great way to prepare for the week is to pitch up to the array of pre-MIPIM parties. They’re brilliant icebreakers and by the time you attend the show you’re already one step ahead.
As a woman, I’ve found events organised for ladies by women in the industry most useful and where I often build relationships fastest. I recommend Chicks With Bricks (CWB) (www.chickswithbricks.com), which allocates just 12% of ticket sales to men, to reflect the same percentage of women currently in the industry. CWB arranges high-quality speakers and encourages mentorships between attendees. It’s always in an interesting venue too!
There are also the more personal “go-Dutch lunches”, particularly LiPs (Ladies in Property), that have resulted in some great collaborations for us at Symmetrys. A relaxed lunch can be a quick and powerful way to get to know somebody and often increases the chances of you working together.
Then there are the established networking groups, like the one where I heard Lord Deben. The FBE (www.fbeonline.co.uk), of which I’m a committee member, is a great place to start and there’s always a good mix of people. As part of FBE, there’s also a Forum for Tomorrow offering more informal events to help anyone under 30 build connections that will boost their career.
These events don’t just help you establish new links and raise the profile of your business. They’re a great way to gain market intelligence and help with recruitment. I’ve also met so many contacts I’m happy to call friends.
There’s the light-hearted side too. You’ll have some hilarious moments, and some rather uncomfortable ones. A delegate once took out his camera phone to snap the name badges on our chests, rather than collect our business cards. To say some were uncomfortable with his approach was an understatement!
And there’s the “sorry I don’t have any business cards” person, who’s waiting for the right contact before releasing their precious email address. To my mind, they’re not playing the long game and thinking how someone who seemingly isn’t immediately useful could actually be the conduit to their next client.
Embrace networking. It’s friendlier and less daunting than you might think. And it’s relationships that make our industry special and in better shape for Brexit.
Jo Shepherd is Associate, Business Development at London structural engineering consultancy Symmetrys Limited.