Monday, June 09, 2008

Like a Rolling Stone - An interview with the Queen of Networking

The following article orginally appeared in this month's edition of The National Networker

"I enjoy being in touch with people."

That's probably an understatement from the woman who's been called 'The Queen of the Scene' and 'The Queen of Networking' by The Independent newspaper. Carole Stone boasts a database of over 33,000 people, all of whom have crossed her path in a career that has taken her from a BBC secretary to Producer of two of BBC Radio 4's flagship shows, Any Questions? and Woman's Hour, and now a partnership with one of the most respected market research organisations in the UK, YouGov.

The author of Networking: The Art of Making Friends and The Ultimate Guide to Successful Networking clearly takes the subject of friendship very seriously. She reckons that she keeps in touch with 'around 10,000' of the people on her database and, though perhaps it would be impossible for Carole to call them all 'friends', she will argue that she can at least remember them. It probably took two or three meetings before Carole recognised me across a crowded room, but now I'm sure she could place me very quickly.

"I've always kept a good record of the contacts I make," she told me when we met at her YouGovStone offices last week. "Initially it was a Rolodex, just cards going around. Now I'm like everyone else, I have an electronic database."

They're not just names. Each entry in Carole's database has comments alongside that tell her all about that person, where they met, what their interests are, even – in the case of a former Any Questions? panellist – that they like to take a bath when they arrive at an event (to my eternal regret, I never pursued that point with Carole!).

"In certain hotels they make a note of what you like or don't like, whether you like freesias in your hotel room for example. So I started to make a note of my contacts' preferences - if they adored Sticky Toffee Pudding for example.

"I keep notes so that every time someone's name pops up it reminds me of interesting things about them – relatives, former jobs, where I met them - things like that. I don't put anything too terrible down just in case that person happens to be looking over my shoulder as I update their entry."

Carole's database includes many of the great and the good of British politics, media and business. Her Christmas parties have become a legend, growing in size until last year she had to hold two separate events. An invitation to attend is keenly sought-after. Once there, you'll find yourself rubbing shoulders with Lords and Ladies, Government Ministers, Chairmen and Chief Executives of leading public and private sector organisations, and media celebrities – as well as Carole's family and long-time friends, and lots of people who may not yet have reached the top but have taken Carole's fancy.

How do you build a database and reputation of this calibre?

"When I left the BBC I started bringing people together for very simple, informal lunches in my flat in Covent Garden, just to stay in touch with the people I'd met on Any Questions? and with friends and former colleagues. I provided a tuna salad, inexpensive but non-headache-making wine and good conversation with interesting people.

"I wasn't doing anything commercial. Anyone I particularly liked I'd invite them to my annual party or to a lunch." But as Carole's reputation for bringing together her influential network spread, a business opportunity arose.

"Gradually one or two Chairmen and Chief Execs of some large companies said 'Could you bring people like this together for me?'; either because they wanted to stay in touch with what was happening in the world, or because they wanted to talk about a particular subject that affected their companies. And out of that a consultancy business grew."

I first met Carole at two such luncheon events. Two different organisations had asked her to bring together key decision-makers and thought-leaders in their fields to discuss projects they were involved with. In the first instance about twelve of us met to discuss how to engage more young people in enterprise, and a second lunch followed to give feedback on a new social network to help marry mentors with people who needed their help.

Carole's networking never stops.

"The last several years I've held what I call my 'salons'. Again it's very simple – just friends and colleagues gathering to share a glass of wine and good conversation on a regular basis. On the whole, it's nice when you meet people to be able to say 'I'm always there on a Monday night' or 'I'm always there on Friday lunchtime'. Whether it's in a room in a bar, or in your home, you do something short and sharp for about an hour and a half. Any longer and people coming early or late miss each other."

Carole's salons are like the woman herself. She bubbles with enthusiasm and talks at one hundred miles an hour. The experience of one of her salons is very similar.

I went along to Carole's flat in London's Covent Garden earlier this week. Carole and her husband, the television journalist Richard Lindley, push back the furniture and each Monday invite around sixty guests into their living room. Richard pours the wine and Carole networks, introducing guests to each other, and making sure that nobody is left standing on their own.

'Can I introduce Sarah? She's a journalist. Sarah, this is Neil, he's a foreign currency trader' Our hostess knows what everyone in the room does and makes sure that they are introduced to fellow guests to get the conversation started.

The large number of people in such a small area creates a vibrant buzz as people happily move from group to group and introduce themselves with an assurance and confidence that you don't often see at other networking events. Everyone has their own story of how they met Carole and how they've come to be there.

I met authors, fellow speakers, former Members of Parliament, Chairmen of successful dot coms and many other interesting people from a wide range of backgrounds during the hour and a half I was there. And if you escape from the throng, you can spend as much time reading the reams of media coverage of Carole that adorn the walls of the corridor in her apartment.

Last year Carole joined forces with the UK's leading online market research company, YouGov and formed YouGovStone, a branch of the organisation designed to find out what opinion formers think about the most important issues facing the country.

"Last year YouGov approached me and said 'we've got a panel of 300,000-400,000 public consumers, maybe you could form a panel of 'influentials'" Carole explained. "If companies or other organisations want to know what the general public think, they come to YouGov. If they want to know what the 'influentials' think, perhaps responding to slightly different or more in-depth questions, they come to YouGovStone. It adds another string to their bow".

Based on this research, Carole is increasingly involved in arranging debates and discussions with the experts on the topics that interest her clients. It might be globalisation, or 'digital politics', the influence of the new media on political campaigns. Dealing with the 4,000+ people who have joined her YouGovStone panel of 'influentials' is time-consuming, but she's determined that they shall all be treated properly.

With 33,000 names on her database and 10,000 of them being instantly recognisable to Carole, how do you make an impression and get remembered? Everyone's talking about Carole Stone, what makes Carole talk about other people?

"The key is that you must have a reputation for being reliable", she says. "Return calls; when you say you will get in touch do so; send information when you promised you would."

We talked about a speaker in the UK who met Carole at an event they both appeared at. Afterwards they exchanged business cards and he told Carole that he wanted to talk about how they could work together in the future. Carole followed up with an email, but never heard from him again. It's clear that she remembers this networking failure.

"There are too many people who don't follow through, who don't send something when they say they will and who, when they have offered to put you in touch with someone, don't actually do it. Of course there are some people whose contact details you can't give out, but you can always say 'I'll forward it for you'. It's about being generous with your contacts".

"Whenever I come back from an event I always make notes of what I've promised to do, to make sure that I follow up immediately. If you do so daily it's not too big a job, but if you let it pile up you lose the contacts you've made."

It's clear that a lot of time, energy and organisation goes into building up and managing the huge network of contacts that Carole has amassed over the years. Not everyone would appreciate the invasion of their living room on a series of salons, nor look forward to organising London's biggest Christmas party and deciding who out of your 33,000 contacts you want to invite.

But, with the help of a small and enthusiastic team, Carole puts her heart and soul into it and shows no signs of slowing down. The Queen's crown isn't slipping.

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