We networked our way all over town. It was March of 2006 - A friend and I were students at Penn State and fundraising for a new charity event we had planned for early April in State College, PA.
Our efforts were acutely focused on identifying sponsors and donors, as well as on connecting with community influencers that could help us achieve our goal in terms of fundraising and awareness for the cause we had focused on.
I learned a lot of great business lessons along the way, however, the most memorable lesson came through an interaction with the former CEO of global finance giant, Merrill Lynch.
We sat in a boardroom with one of our existing supporters, a prominent local executive, brainstorming ways we could further accelerate our fundraising efforts. She shared a bold suggestion - bold at least for two college students at the time working on their first community fundraiser. She suggested we reach out to the former chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, William "Bill" Schreyer, and ask him to be our lead contributor.
At the time, I knew of Bill Schreyer in general terms. His name adorned Penn State's newly formed Schreyer Honors College. As a business school student, I was aware of the gravitas and fame that surrounds someone who serves as CEO of a company the size and scale of Merrill Lynch.
Our local supporter said she knew Mr. Schreyer well enough to make the ask on our behalf. As she dialed the number, needless to say I was intimidated. In my mind, we were reaching out to the unreachable - an executive so prominent that he could not possibly have time or interest in my efforts. Our supporter asked how much money I wanted to ask for. I shared a number that seemed enormous in my mind. After all, I was a naïve college student. I waited anxiously for the response.
Our supporter explained to Mr. Schreyer what we working on and made the ask - the exact number I had suggested. Milliseconds passed and without barely a breath Mr. Schreyer replied. "Who do I make the check out to?"
We celebrated joyfully having just received the first major gift in our fundraising efforts. Mr. Schreyer's contribution, the significant value of which has always remained confidential, fueled us towards a fundraising total of $90,000+ in the event's inaugural year and we would go on to raise $200,000+ the following year.
A few "lessons learned" from this interaction with Mr. Schreyer stick with me as I grow as a leader in the business community and work with great entrepreneurs scaling companies.
1) If you do not ask for anything, you will not receive anything.
When your business or venture needs help, ask for it. I frequently hear entrepreneurs and leaders talk about their wish for a certain partnership, a particular advisor, or a potential investor that can help them grow their business or penetrate a new market yet they are afraid to ask. Remember that it is human nature for people to want to connect and help one another. Instead of keeping the item on the "wish list" go ahead and ask for the help you need. I now maintain both a daily "to do" list and a more "aspirational" list of items to accomplish. I ensure that the "aspirational" list is getting the same level of attention as the day-to-day list.
2) Do not underestimate the impact a seemingly "one-way" ask may have on the person helping you.
Perhaps the most meaningful takeaway from my interaction with Mr. Schreyer was how much it meant to him to assist in our efforts. Shortly after the event, I received a handwritten note in the mail from Mr. Schreyer thanking me for my efforts on behalf of the community and expressing his enthusiasm for being part of what we accomplished. I could not believe it. The former CEO of Merrill Lynch was thanking me for taking his money.
An ask that appears on the surface as "one-way" is frequently more "two-way" than you might think. The best interactions in business are those that help both parties achieve their goals and interests. Leaders must work hard to find common ground and mutual interests. When you do, you unlock limitless potential in terms of partnership.
3) Do your research.
When we called Mr. Schreyer, I knew at a high level who he was. That said, I did not perform any research to learn more about him. This was a shortcoming in my approach and we were lucky he said yes, in my opinion. There are countless articles online about Mr. Schreyer's career successes and charitable giving habits. He even authored his own book. I left a lot on the table in terms of knowledge and "advanced scouting" that could have helped us even more in our interactions. To this day, I feel lucky he said yes.
Now before every business meeting I do exhaustive research. I research the individual professionally and personally. Leveraging tools like LinkedIn and Google are great, however, I find the best way to learn more about a particular individual is to ask people that already know them about what makes them tick. Achieving an understanding as to what a company or individual is experiencing or interested in vastly accelerates the level of partnership or access that can be achieved.
I relentlessly focus on improvement and am a believer that you learn as much from your wins as you do your losses. Eleven years ago the former CEO of Merrill Lynch handed me more than a check. He handed me a lifelong lesson.
What lifelong business and networking lessons have you learned from your interactions in business and the community?
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