Frank Kimball

You’re Not Networking - You’re Connecting

My New Year’s Resolution for 2011 is to banish the word networking. It’s become tiresome, predictable, and cliche ridden, conjuring up images of people working rooms, collecting cards, and investing way too much time in LinkedIn, Facebook, and updating the synch software on their Blackberry. The word for the new year is Connecting. 

Until you take the final step of connecting - personally, old school - the network is incomplete and useless. Once you connect it’s the most powerful weapon in your arsenal. Plus, and this is top secret, it’s fun. Since human beings came out of the caves and formed tribes they have connected based on common backgrounds, common interests, and common needs. So to all of you this year - resolve to Connect. Connect with 5 new friends each week. Reconnect with 10 old friends. You’re on your way to Grand Master status. I would be pleased to confer it personally along with a nice glass of Malbec but first we have to Connect. For this holiday column I want to pass along thoughts about three of the greatest Connectors I’ve met in my life. One you’ll know; one you should have known; the other is in your midst.

Robert E. Bouma - I read with sadness last week about the death of my former partner Bob Bouma of McDermott, Will & Emery. Raised in Iowa, a graduate of Coe College and the University of Iowa School of Law, he practiced for six years with Cravath before moving in house where he was senior corporate counsel and General Counsel of several Fortune 500 companies. Returning to private practice in his mid-forties he developed a roster of clients that would be the envy of any law firm in the nation. Of course he was smart talented lawyer. But what set him apart in business development was his legendary ability to connect with people. Iowans aren’t snobs. They connect.

In the pre-tech era of the 1980's Bob didn’t need a Rolodex, a data base, LinkedIn or a Facebook profile. He had it locked down more than Katy Perry in California Gurls. He knew the name and story of everyone at a client’s office -and I do mean everyone. He’d chat with the security guard, the receptionist, staff members, and execs in corner offices. He’d remember little details and anecdotes about their kids, their lives outside the office, and which sports team they supported.

He’d chide them warmly and even when a case had its darkest hours he could make a roomful of anxious executives smile and relax. After a day of meetings, he’d smile and say "well Mr. Kimball it’s time to do rounds." That meant one more circle around the floor to say good night and exchange a story or two. And I don’t recall any visit where he didn’t leave the building without several new matters for that client. Cheap stupid smarmy pet trick? No, ma’m. Smartest guy in the building.

Bob was tenacious, demanding, relentless and because he was a big fit fellow who played college basketball could be a wee bit intimidating. But if you did your work, and pushed as hard as he did - he would watch your back. And having Bouma watch your back was like having a platoon of Recon Marines guarding your house. My regret: I didn’t speak with him in the last year or two and that’s something I’ll regret. But I do know this -- old school Bob Bouma is circling another floor, helping, winking, and doing what he can to make heaven a more pleasant place to be. I also know that the things I learned by watching him help me every day. Was he my mentor? I don’t know - because he extended the courtesy of professional loyalty to everyone in his circle - as long as they were willing to put their shoulder to the wheel and shared his commitment to excellence. From one Wolverine to one Hawkeye - an epic loss.

Barack Obama - In February 2007, I had the privilege of meeting a young law school graduate who was looking for a temp job of sorts. His name: Barack Obama. My wife was part of a committee of professional women in Chicago who organized a luncheon just as his campaign was launched. N.B. They filled the main ballroom of the Chicago Hilton (and the balcony) and raised over $2,000,000.

Even though a life long Republican I’d decided to support Obama and wrangled an invitation from Linda to come along to the pre-luncheon reception for the committee. The Senator walked into a small conference room - and not being the bashful sort, I walked up to him and thought - I’ll never have a chance to speak with this man again, so give it your best shot. Keep it simple, smile, and connect. Little did I know that I was about to meet the Great Connector.

I told him I wanted to tell him two things. First, that I was a conservative Republican but that I’d decided to support him. He said "What’s the second thing Frank?" I said "our kids go to the same school" (the Lab School at the University of Chicago). He looked at my name tag and said "You’re Shannon Kimball’s Dad." He’d read about her track and cross country heroics on the school website. As he walked on to greet someone else he grabbed my shoulder and said "You tell Shannon to keep running." I said "Senator, that’s what she’d tell you."

In that moment - he connected. He didn’t give a speech. He didn’t campaign. He did not seek adoration. He found a connection. It will come as a surprise to most - but all Presidents are connectors. I am and will always be a fan of President Reagan. Not many people voted for Reagan and Obama. I’d vote for either one again in a heartbeat. Because of policy? Nope. Because of two things. First their fundamental optimism about the future of this nation. Second their ability to connect with other human beings. We can debate policy later. Here we are talking about inspiration and leadership and a young man who reads the website of his children’s school while he is campaigning for President.

The Next Generation - At 57 I find inspiration from many sources but by far the greatest is to watch the Next Generation grab the reins of free enterprise and professionalism and blaze a trail to personal and professional success. For some it’s intuitive. For most it’s work. But the greatest among you know it’s a priority and know that initiative and persistence is important in everything that you do. Under the Kimball Wolverine Eternal Privilege, as amended, let me tell you a story about a favorite Michigan graduate who is a remarkable young lawyer. Of course she has all the markers for success - she’s seriously brilliant, a tireless worker, a great writer, terrific in court (I’ve listened to her appellate arguments), and tremendous at client service. She’s also at the stage of her career as a great mid level associate where you are old enough to do anything but too young to get junior people to help. She’s learned that the reward for good work is more work,, and that’s O.K. with her. But here’s the secret to why she’ll be a peer of Obama and Bouma when it comes to connecting.

She gets it. And she likes it. And there are probably 500 lawyers and business people in Chicago who believe that they are among her 10 best friends. And in a way that’s right. What does she do? The big stuff and the little stuff. Active in her community she writes, speaks, organizes, deploys, and helps. She’s not a drama queen or a glory hog. She can roll up her sleeves, deal with tedium, nonsense, and complexity. And she does it by making it look easy. Would someone please teach me how to do that.

She’s not a native of Chicago - raised in a small town, high school class of 38, and knew as she tells me 5 people and 2 cats when she arrived in Chicago five years ago. Alert to Rahm Emmanuel: you’ll win the election, sir, but if this woman runs against you in 8 years, they better take you out of the toaster because you’ll be done. Where will she be in 10 years and what will she be doing? I don’t know. But I do know this: I feel privileged to know this star of ths Wolverine nation. But we don’t breach privilege in Ann Arbor so the name remains in the Kimball Vault. Hint: I think she’s the heretofore undiscovered separated at birth twin sister of Jessie Kornberg. Just my theory.

So yesterday morning I was working on the first draft of this column and I get an e-mail from this lawyer - she's about to go on trial and is generally harried beyond comprehension but had to appear at a major breakfast for one of the organizations she serves on and complained that it was at 0 dark 30 in the morning on a really crummy winter Chicago day.  I thought to myself - what would Bouma do?  Well, he'd call her up and say I'm heading that way early tomorrow morning - I'll pick you up.  Client becomes captive audience exchange great thoughts, agree that both participants are brilliant, and just have some quality time.  As I dropped her off I said "Wolverines never lie - there was no appointment for me downtown- just that would improve your day."  And heck, I'm from Southern California and any excuse to drive is good enough for me.

Generation Next - They’re a fascinating group. Highly motivated. Extremely competitive but willing to share. They are the generation that will banish racism and sexism in this nation. We had our shot - we made progress - but they’re going to kill the beast. Yes - today they are frustrated, angry, scared, confused about where the career path will lead them. And in their ranks are some sycophants, weirdos, high maintenance jerks, and worse. In that respect they mirror our elders.

I have the privilege of meeting with hundreds of law students from the nation’s leading schools every year - and in 35 years I have interviewed, hired, placed, or counseled 10,000 more. This generation is fantastic and they will accomplish more for our profession than we can possibly imagine. In their words, "this is how they roll."

I was on a Southwest flight from Little Rock to Chicago a week ago - every seat taken and a young man in his early 20's, buzz cut, and a back pack said "Sir may I have that seat." I know the back pack - it’s standard issue for the Army. We chatted most of the flight - here’s what I learned. Raised in Vermont, he joined the National Guard to be a soldier but also because when he’s not deployed they fight fires and run rescue operations on lakes and rivers.

He said he wanted to become a Sergeant and earn three patches for his uniform - Ranger, Airborne Ranger, and 10th Mountain Division - he already had his Combat Infantry Badge from Middle East deployments. He said "Sir I just want to serve and earn those badges and go home and find the guy who recruited me and order him to do 50 push ups." Napoleon once wrote that "it is a amazing what a man will do to earn a small fabric ribbon honoring his service." That’s our Next Generation. America will be fine. So will the legal profession.

General Becton has not met the young soldier who sat between us on a plane ride from Little Rock to Chicago. But they share the same commitment to service, to excellence, to country, and to completing the mission at hand - no matter what effort is required. A true source of inspiration to any or all of us. Log on to Amazon and order Becton’s autobiography - Autobiography of a Solder and Public Servant. Or you can borrow mine. If you don’t return it I’m turning the case over to my new puppy Dakota. If you smell like chicken she’s got only two questions - is my next meal regular or extra crispy?

Find Your Style and Your Comfort Zone - I’m not President Obama or Bob Bouma and I wouldn’t pretend to be. Connecting is about finding your own style and way with people. There’s no template for 1:1 relationships. I’m a great believer in small gestures that make a big impact (and don’t require reciprocation). So for clients, friends, and potential clients I love to do things like this:

  • Get them get a table at a favorite impossible to get a seat restaurant (top secret)
  • Find them a real estate broker, a private banker, a great handyman, or the cheapest place to get great wines in Chicago
  • Answer an e-mail with a telephone call (much more personal)
  • Offer to make a house-call - go visit your clients face to face - less tech, more connect
  • Recommend a book - better yet buy it and give it to them just because it’s Tuesday - I’ve given away 400 books in the last three years to clients, friends, and others about some of my favorite subjects (if you want the list you have to connect with me)
  • Recommend a hole in the wall restaurant in a city where they will be on vacation
  • Put them in touch with a tour guide we used in Florence five years ago
  • Give them the name and number of a favorite discount jeweler in New York
  • Send them a gag gift of some sort when they least expect it
  • Years ago I arranged for a great summer associate and her then S.O. to get a table at a restaurant in Paris and, what the heck, paid the bill (any surprise that 20 some years later they are incredible success stories in two world class law firms that I am privileged to call clients?) (Craig and Laura if you read this give me a call).
  • Help them through a crisis finding them the right psychiatrist, surgeon, counselor for their children, or a lawyer 1,000 miles away who can help a troubled friend of theirs
  • Introduce them to someone they must get to know in the community (make fast friends of all three in that equation). Heck I even introduced four couples who are now married.
  • This is fun stuff. And it’s remembered with fondness and in perpetuity. I started my search and consulting business eighteen years ago and it’s been more fun and rewarding than I could have ever imagined. A key part of my work is visiting law schools, presenting programs, and counseling students. Ninety some programs for fifteen law schools and still counting. At the end of each program, there’s always a slide that has a photo of my daughter and tale or two that teaches a lesson from the anecdotes of her life. Shannon finds this mortifying but we’ve reached an amicable truce on the tradition so I’ll conclude today with a Shannon story.

    The year was 2008, the city was Prague, and our family was winding its way through Czech passport control. Somehow I wound up way ahead of Linda and Shannon and decided I’d chat with the Czech security guard, tell him a few good Chicago jokes. His English was impeccable and for whatever reason he declared me the funniest American he’d met and shook hands laughed, slapped me on the back and waved me through. Shannon’s reaction. "Look Mom, Dad’s doing it again. That guard is laughing hysterically. Do you think he told him the one about the Pope, the Grizzly Bear, and the Alabama woods." Nah. I was just connecting with someone - because that’s what makes life worth living.

    Have a wonderful holiday and keep spreading the good word about Ms. JD. And if you’re in Chicago and want to stop by, meet our new puppy, have some Malbec and discuss Michigan football or connecting, give me a call. I don’t book up that far in advance. It has been an honor working with you as a Writer in Residence.



    One of the greatest pieces of advice I received during law school was to stop looking for ways people could help me, and start looking for ways I could help people. Law students are often looking to make connections that will result in internships and jobs, but they fail to look for things that they can offer. Sure, law students probably can’t offer career help, but they should look for other things they CAN offer—a tip on a great babysitter in town, a recommendation for a great new restaurant, the phone number of a good handyman….


    Reading your suggestions, it occurred to me that this version of networking is really just about being a good friend and a contributing member of your community—a win win no matter what!  Thanks for the advice!

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