Building Impactful Relationships with Susan McPherson
November 11, 2021

Susan McPherson is a serial connector, seasoned communicator and founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy focused on the intersection of brands and social impact. She is the author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships. Susan has 25+ years of experience in marketing, public relations, and sustainability communications, speaking regularly at industry conferences and contributing to the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and Forbes. She has appeared on NPR, CNN, USA Today, The New Yorker, New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Times. Susan is a Vital Voices global corporate ambassador and has received numerous accolades for her voice on social media platforms from Fortune Magazine, Fast Company and Elle Magazine. In her conversation with journalist, media leader and advocate for women Cindi Leive, McPherson offers insights into how to gather and build community as we work our way back into offices and society.

Cindi Leive: You are a skilled connector. That's not something that comes naturally to everyone. How did you learn that skill?

Susan McPherson: When I was a child, my parents were consummate connectors but they didn't have the technology we have today. So every morning at the breakfast table, I was literally vying for real estate for my bowl of cereal. They would lay out the five local newspapers, plus yesterday's New York Times and Boston Globe, and clip and cut articles that made them think of loved ones.

Their approach to connection stemmed from my mother’s work as a public relations executive at PBS and my Dad’s as college professor at a woman's college. My Dad stayed in touch with his students, their daughters and their granddaughters until he passed in 2008 via US mail and his manual typewriter. I just assumed everybody's parents did that.

The other thing they taught me - which I truly believe in, is that every single person no matter who they are, where they come from, the color of their skin, their culture or heritage, is deserving of our attention, our curiosity and our compassion. Living that ethos, has opened my eyes to learning things about myself that I would never have if I hadn't been open or thought the other person couldn't help me. What I learned from my parents is if we lead with being helpful, people will come back and help us.

Cindi Leive: The title of your book, The Lost Art of Connecting, implies that the idea of just reaching out proactively without any thought of what the person on the receiving end of the newspaper clipping is going to do for you in return used to be more common. Do you think that is the case?

Susan McPherson: Yes. Before we had all the technology tools, we had more time and were less distracted. It is possible to use technology in a much more intentional way. As I think back over the height of the pandemic, if we hadn’t had these tools, can you imagine how much harder things would have been? Many people have suffered traumatic losses in addition to the racial reckoning. It was a challenging time. However, thinking optimistically, we are now looking at how social platforms can be used to do more good. And how they can bridge communities that may not be connected.

In your next networking situation, an exercise to try is to practice the power of three: meet three people, learn three things and share three things.

Cindi Leive: Is there anything wrong with walking into a room with a bunch of business cards?

Susan McPherson: It's necessary. I mean, we're all going to have to do it at various times, especially if we're going back into conferences and convention halls where we don't know people. However, thanks to technology, now we don't have to do so blindly. When I was coming of age professionally, we didn't have the tools to determine who would be in the room beforehand. But now, in many cases, with a bit of due diligence, we can be very intentional about who we connect with.

We also want to be intentional about how we connect with others. The transactional notion of getting a business card, connecting on LinkedIn, and immediately asking for something is not productive. We all know what that's like on the receiving end, right? We don't respond. If we want to build meaningful relationships, we have to flip that. If you look up the Merriam-Webster definition of networking, it's work. It's right there in the name. To build impactful relationships, we are going to have to put in more effort.

Cindi Leive: It can sometimes be challenging to force yourself to share about yourself. Do you have any tips for people for whom that might not come naturally?

Susan McPherson: In my book, there's a chapter with ten questions you can ask when you are in that situation. They are icebreakers that lead to meaningful conversations. Questions like: At the end of this pandemic, if there was anywhere in the world you could go and money wasn't an option, where would it be? Or if there was one problem you could solve in the next three months, what would it be?

When you ask those types of questions, you're leading with humanity. You're also learning something about the other person that gives you data. You can then say, "Oh, I know someone else who wants to solve that problem." Whenever someone asks me for an introduction, I look at it as an opportunity for both people to grow and expand and happen.

Cindi Leive: How do you allow yourself to make fruitful connections without sapping yourself of all emotional and intellectual energy?

Susan McPherson: Great question. There's no way I can take every meeting but I have found that I can be much more helpful by getting to the point directly. One way I do that is by asking what exactly it is that the person wants to accomplish.

Also, my advice to anybody out there making requests from others is to lead with how you can be helpful first. Instead of reaching out initially with an ask, first think if there's one little thing you can do to help.

I'll give a quick example. The week of my book launch, I received an email from a woman who wanted half an hour of my time to "pick my brain." All I thought was, "On the week of my book launch? My face was just in Times Square!" To solicit a more generous reaction, she could have googled me and offered congratulations or made the request at a more strategic time. I bring this up because these are things we all occasionally do, and we could be better at doing them.

Cindi Leive: Connections require output and input. It's a bit draining to put yourself out there and not get a response. How do we find people who actually want to connect?

Susan McPherson: I think you have to start with the people you know. Start with your communities. Sometimes when we think of our communities, we immediately think of our friends, which is fine but branch out. Reach out to your colleagues, your fellow alums from school, people from your faith-based community, your neighbors. For those of you wanting to connect, start with the people you know, and ask them to connect you to people who could be helpful or that you could be helpful to.

My advice to anybody out there making requests from others is to lead with how you can be helpful first.

Cindi Leive: What automated tools do you use to track and maintain your relationships? Beyond a contacts database? How do you keep track of all the conversations and not drop off email chains?

Susan McPherson: I don't know if this is the answer you want to hear but I was blessed with an amazing memory. I also am a slave to carrying a notebook around with me and I write things down. The calendar is also big for me. If it doesn't get on my calendar, it doesn't happen.

From my company's perspective, we use a tool that isn't as heavy as Salesforce. It's called Insightly, which is a contact management database that works very well for our size company - which is a bit on the smaller side.

Cindi Leive: What tips can you recommend for networking in a field or industry in which you have no direct contact?

Susan McPherson: Sure. Well, this is where LinkedIn can be your friend. And I know we love and hate LinkedIn for all the reasons, but I have found it to be so effective, both personally and professionally.

Cindi Leive: How can we strengthen remote connections as we transition employees back to in-person work?

Susan McPherson: Well, first and foremost, I think every person who runs a company needs to find out whether their employees want to be back. I don't think we should force anyone back. And I will shout that to the rooftops.

Everything I'm reading says there is a good percentage, at least in the United States, of people who don't want to physically go back. So this is going to be a challenge for leaders. And I think it really comes down to having heart-to-heart discussions with your employees and finding out how they want to stay connected. Then use your power and privilege to help them stay connected.



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