Braille Monitor                                                                               July 2006


Seven Proven Steps to Effective Network Building

by Olegario "Ollie" D. Cantos VII

Ollie Cantos

From the Editor: Ollie Cantos, a former state and national scholarship winner originally from California, is now a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. In the article that follows, he provides perspective on networking strategies he has found successful in his professional development. Interwoven throughout is the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, which he has carried with him since he became a member almost sixteen years ago. Here is what he has to say:

Members of the National Federation of the Blind have long held that we have the right to succeed or fail on our own merit and that, when given the proper training in basic skills and the opportunity to succeed, we can compete at places of school or work on terms of full equality with others. This rightful assertion serves as a rallying cry for any of us, regardless of age or background, because we know in our hearts that success is there for the asking if we do what it takes to work hard and smart to maximize our potential while demonstrating self-confidence infused with a positive philosophy of blindness. Central to this quest to improve our lives and prepare for a bright future, we must take time and thought to build a support system to sustain us in good times and bad. We naturally find this sustenance in the Federation. To supplement such fellowship and ongoing opportunities to learn from our colleagues, we must increase the size and quality of our individual networks. Here are some step-by-step strategies that can contribute to your success more than you could dream. After discussing these techniques, I will illustrate the way their application can lead to an increase in the quality of life for anyone.

Begin by recognizing that you already have a network of people in your life, each of whom may lead you to others, who in turn may lead you to still others. On the principle that only up to six degrees of separation exist between each of us and every other person on the planet, the networking possibilities are endless. Let us begin by discussing the specific steps you can take to enhance your own base of support in any area of your life.

Step 1: Incorporate into Your Life the Philosophy That It Is Respectable to Be Blind.

From the time we joined the Federation, we have heard and dare to believe that it is respectable to be blind. But what exactly does this mean? It means that individually and collectively we understand to the core of our beings that, when we obtain quality training in the alternative techniques of blindness and can move about efficiently and confidently in the world, blindness itself can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance--a characteristic as incidental as hair or skin color. It means that the cane and dog guide are tools of independence rather than symbols of pity or shame. It means that we believe wholeheartedly that Braille can be an efficient method of reading and writing for anyone whose use of print is not efficient. It means that we are neither tragically deprived nor wondrously gifted simply because we are blind. Finally it means that blindness does not require that we beat the odds or overcome insurmountable obstacles to succeed.

That said, we will reach out to those who have recently become blind by extending a hand of friendship and support as they make the transition into learning how to become active, productive blind citizens. This means showing them that ability is not proportional to visual acuity and that blindness is not synonymous with darkness, depression, tragedy, deprivation, or other negatives that promote dependence, low self-esteem, and the misguided notion that life can no longer be lived fully.

Believing in the respectability of blindness also entails not believing that blindness itself is something to be ignored or overlooked. Saying, "You do so well that I forget you are blind," is another way of saying (however unintentionally), "You do so well that I forget that you are inferior to me because you have a disability that leads to helplessness and dependence." The fact of blindness need not be forgotten, ignored, or divorced from the rest of who we are. Blindness does not mean that our lives are necessarily better or worse than those of anyone else. Blindness is simply not having the ability to see--nothing more and nothing less. Our own reactions to blindness and those of others determine how our blindness is perceived.

Step 2: Acquire Understanding and Use of the Alternative Techniques of Blindness.

We use the word "alternative" when referring to the techniques of blindness because these ways of doing things are not inferior to methods that require vision. Belief in the efficiency of alternative techniques and personal efforts to acquire them are critical to incorporation of the NFB's philosophy of blindness with practical application to our daily lives. Mastering alternative techniques takes time. Working to sharpen skills every day while consciously embracing a healthy attitude about blindness will speed improvement. Dovetailing this effort with the discipline of setting personal goals and timelines will help to expedite skill acquisition and integration into one's life. Better still, as Federation members mentor one another and bolster each other while honing personal skills, we position ourselves to live successfully and take full advantage of life's opportunities.

We do not suddenly arrive at a moment when we are skilled at one task or another. We look at our leaders and say, "Gosh, I wish I could read Braille as fast and expressively as President Maurer," or "I wish I could travel as well as Peggy Elliott." But remember, as good as many experienced Federationists are at one task or another, at one time they were not as skillful and did not possess the confidence and competence they project today. Everyone has to learn the skills of blindness, and confidence and competence come with experience. What is so wonderful is that, like other rank-and-file members, our leaders are also there for us. As we learn and grow and pass this knowledge on to still others, we will continue to strengthen our movement, one life at a time.

Step 3: Network with Others at Organized Gatherings.

At chapter meetings and state and national conventions of the National Federation of the Blind, we often meet people, establishing friendships that can last decades. Coming together through the various gatherings of the Federation is always special because we can learn from one another and support each other during times of triumph and difficulty. Any seasoned member will tell you that indeed we are not just part of an organization but a close-knit family that cares about each of us. Active attendance at and participation in gatherings of the Federation will educate, inspire, motivate, and galvanize those smart enough to get involved.

When new to a large gathering, whether comprised of Federationists or others, it may be difficult at first to know how to begin to network, particularly in receptions in which people are spread throughout the room. Those not accustomed to initiating conversations in such settings may not know how to proceed.

One proven technique for beginning to meet people is to abide by the three-feet rule. This involves greeting anyone within a radius of three feet. In addition to exchanging the usual pleasantries, one should note several kinds of information: occupation, talents and abilities, hobbies and interests, and any other personal facts that may help you get to know the new acquaintance.

Have you ever introduced yourself to someone and within a millisecond discovered that you have forgotten his or her name? Repeating the name three to five times within the first five minutes of the conversation will help your recall. Insert the person's name at socially appropriate times. Don't blurt, "Hi, Bill. It's nice to meet you, Bill. So, Bill, what do you do for a living?" That will only succeed in conveying the impression that you are quirky or strange. Exercise appropriate judgment about frequency of name use while talking with a stranger, and people will see you as a good conversationalist, especially when you express genuine interest in what the person is saying. Using his or her name will achieve several objectives: you stand a better chance of remembering the name; you will encourage the person to pay closer attention to what you are saying because people perk up when they hear their names mentioned (think of the way your attention shifts when you hear your name spoken in a conversation across the room); and acknowledging someone by name conveys the respect that comes from believing that everyone deserves to be called by name.

By the end of the conversation you should have collected the other person's contact information. Typically, especially in a professional setting, attendees are likely to have business cards. If you do not already have business cards, it is important to obtain a set so people can reach you by snail mail, phone, or email. (You can create your own card text and print it on a perforated page of cardstock designed for this purpose.) Once you exchange business cards, keep them in one pocket so that at the conclusion of the event you can note that you met all of these people at this event. Also be sure to take note of date-sensitive occasions such as the mention of an upcoming birthday or anniversary or the upcoming occurrence of another big event in the person's life.

When parting ways with a person with whom you have been conversing and who may be of personal or professional interest to you, let him or her know that you will be in touch, and mean it. This is critical in preparation for what follows below.

Step 4: Capture, Organize, and Retain the Contact Information of New Network Members.
As soon as possible take notes about the people you have met and what you remember about them. You can use a computer, Braille, or even a tape recorder. If using a computer, you can enter information in a word processing file, the address book feature of your email client, or a database program. Database fields should include the complete name, nickname, full address, phone and fax numbers, email address, any Web sites, date of initial meeting, and notes. These will come in handy later on as your network grows, so taking the time to get and organize this information is worth the effort.

Step 5: Follow Up Within One to Three Days.

With contact information in hand, either send new network members an email or give each person a call within one to three days of the initial meeting. This is important for several reasons. First, it will help solidify that person's recollection of you. Second, it will illustrate your diligence in staying in touch, just as you said you would (see Step 3). If sending an email, the subject line might be "Following Up." Remember that I told you earlier to make note of any date-sensitive event or occasion? Here is where such information can be used. If during your initial conversation you learned the date of the person's birthday, anniversary, or another important occasion, this is the opportunity to use technology to impress your contact. Almost every voicemail system has the option of delivering messages at a future date and time, typically up to one year after the present day. Therefore, if the person mentioned that he or she would be celebrating a birthday on August 3, log in to your own voicemail system and internally send a message to yourself leaving the person's name, where you met, and what and when the important occasion is. Also include the email address and phone number and the appropriate message delivery date.

At the appointed date and time you will in effect hear your voice from the past refreshing your memory about the contact, the occasion, and the way to reach the person. Imagine the impression you will make when you call perhaps several months later to remind the person when you met and to offer good wishes on the important occasion. When was the last time you received such a message? You will stand out simply by genuinely and appropriately wishing the person well.

Other examples of using technology include taking advantage of the calendar feature on the BrailleNote, PAC Mate, or other adaptive technology. In addition, email programs such as Microsoft Outlook have powerful reminder features.

Step 6: Set Your Academic or Job-Related Goals and Use the Power of Your Network to Leverage People, Ideas, and Resources.

If you are still in school, building a strong and powerful network will place you in a good position to assemble a brain trust of people knowledgeable in your field. You can also get to know other students who are pursuing similar career goals. For those looking for employment or advancement in their careers, a large and vibrant network may very well make the critical difference between immediate and delayed success.

But, as counterintuitive as it may be for some, the purpose of network-building must necessarily be to enrich the lives of every network member. Building a network simply for the purpose of personal advancement will reap limited results because the glue that holds a durable network together is the loyalty people have to you. That loyalty will not begin and grow from your simply finding ways to take from others or otherwise derive gain from them. Rather, loyalty flourishes when you do whatever you can to be of direct and concrete benefit to them without expecting anything in return, not even a thank you. This intention must be genuine. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to build your network with the intention of adding value to the lives of others. Specifically, adding value means doing what you can to help people in a way they find meaningful.

Recall earlier how you made note of people's occupations, talents and abilities, hobbies and interests, etc.? Here is where that information comes in handy. Say Person 1 in your network needs information or assistance. Assume, further, that Person 17 in your network could be of direct help. The traditional approach would be for you to put Person 1 and 17 in contact with each other, but the more innovative approach is to offer to call Person 17 on behalf of Person 1. Having secured the commitment for assistance, call Person 1 with the name and contact information of your friend who is willing to offer help or information. Be specific and accurate about what you said and what help is available. Suggest that the contact be made in the next day or two, and ask to be kept posted so that you can help further if necessary. A week later follow up with both people to be sure all is well and to see if there is anything further you can do to help.

You will have accomplished several things: added value to one network member who needed assistance; provided a second member with an opportunity to serve another; leveraged your own time by making a significant difference in just a few moments; and created a new synergy that may lead to possibilities not previously anticipated.

Imagine if each network member in this example were an organization president. Simply by bringing two people together, you may not only have added value to the person in need, but have created alliance possibilities between two organizations, extending potential benefit to the members of the organizations brought together.

All of us have only twenty-four hours each day. As we link folks up with one another, an amazing dynamic can take place. To the extent that these members of your network think highly of you, your name will come up in conversation as they continue to interact, and, though you are not present, they will build you up among themselves. They will mention you to others, and those people will continue to do the same. Gradually your cadre of loyal acquaintances increases in size and strength, adding to the momentum of your network's growth and increasing your ability to multiply your time by spreading your influence to more and more centers of support. As your reputation spreads, so will new ways to make a real difference in the lives of those around you. In time people will call or email you, saying that they were referred to you by someone who may never have met you before but who has heard of you from others who see you as the go-to person who knows the answers to various questions or is tied to those who do.

In order to maintain quality communication with your ever-expanding network of those about whom you care deeply and personally, use the power of email. No less than every two to three months drop everyone a line through a group email using the blind carbon copy (bcc) field, tell them how you have been doing, and offer to help them if they need you. Take the time to get to know people so well that you instantly find ways to connect them to one another as they themselves seek to get to know more people. By staying in regular email contact, you will keep them at the forefront of your mind and remind them to think of you the same way.

In using email, however, be mindful of the need to respect people's time by treating your network members online the way you wish to be treated. Do not inundate them with too much too quickly, and refrain from sending email chain letters, jokes, or political diatribes. If your email volume becomes so great that it is no longer possible to respond to people within a few days, be sure to give them your general turnaround time, whether it be a week or six weeks or more, especially if you receive hundreds of personal messages a week. Whatever time you decide upon, however, honor it. To give people a chance to reach you more quickly on time-sensitive matters, ask them to supplement any such email with a phone call to tell you that their email needs more immediate attention. This will allow you to watch for pressing matters and address them accordingly.

As your network grows, expect some folks to be in touch with you fairly consistently. But do not be surprised when some network members do not contact you for weeks or months or contact you only when they need something. Focus on the fact that, of all the people they know, they have turned to you when they need information or assistance. Particularly in the professional or business context, that is the nature of the relationship, so it is to be expected. Moreover, because you want to add value to others, irrespective of whether or to what extent you receive personal gain, understand that part of making a difference involves working with those who, for whatever reason, call only when they need something. These folks will be offset by others in your network who want to know you and who stay in touch because of who you are and not because of what you can do for them. All in all, though, understanding that you have the chance to affect someone's life becomes a source of very real satisfaction.

Step 7: Commit to Deliberate Daily Action toward Self-Improvement.

Each of us must recognize areas for personal improvement. In order to make the most of every day, honestly analyze your strengths and weaknesses in the areas of family, spirituality, career and finance, and development and pursuit of hobbies and interests. First brainstorm what you would like to have if you could wave a magic wand to make those things happen in each area of your life. Give yourself three minutes to write down as many things as you can without considering the practicalities. Then determine which goals on your wish list you will commit to accomplishing within one month, six months, one year, three years, or five years. Next devise a specific action plan to achieve each goal within the time you have set. Then stick to that plan.

Meanwhile integrate your network into all you do, and devote yourself to learning about the success stories of people you admire. Read personal development books, analyze the lives of those you want to emulate, attend seminars taught by success coaches, and obtain personal study programs that will facilitate growth in your personal understanding. Keep a mental inventory of all that you have and the people who enrich your life. Periodically sit down alone and contemplatively write these things down in recognition of how truly blessed you are. In the words of a favorite hymn: count your many blessings. Name them one by one. And it will surprise you what the Lord has done. If you are steadily grateful for what you have been given, you will have the strength to withstand and confront setbacks and to maintain a strong work ethic as you strive to reach true success in spite of temporary problems.

All the while live out the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind every day, devoting yourself to the advancement of our issues and spending time to work for causes beyond the disability field. In other words, dedicate your energy to working efficiently and with organizations for the things about which you feel most passionate.

To build your network even faster, I recommend incorporating the pay-it-forward concept into every chance you get to be of help to others. When people come to me for personal assistance, I insist on two conditions. First, the person must promise that he or she will substantially assist at least three other people. Second, the person must ask each of those three people to help three others as a condition of receiving assistance. Mathematically your impact will increase exponentially. When combined with the commitment to engage in random acts of kindness toward others, our personal impact on this world will be profound and long-lasting.

The networking approaches I have discussed here are not meant merely as general instruction, but for practical and daily application. Their underlying principles go far beyond the blindness field. Do these approaches work? You bet! Since I attended my first NFB national convention in 1990, my life has never been the same. Then for the first time I came to understand the fundamental respectability of blindness and began using a long white cane after denying or otherwise downplaying my blindness for my entire life. I also began learning Braille, a skill I now use every day. By the time of that convention in Dallas, Texas, I had been an NFB member for only a few weeks. Yet, in response to an old television program that portrayed blind people negatively, I drafted what became Resolution 1990-10, and with the help of then California affiliate President Sharon Gold and NFB Second Vice President Peggy Pinder I revised the language.

Rather than being considered during the business session on the closing day of the convention, my resolution was the first to be passed that year, having been taken up when Larry King was on the platform in order to send a clear message that the blind of the nation were outraged by the negative portrayal of blindness. I still remember the thrill of it all, and I recall that a light went on in me as the Convention unanimously adopted the resolution. At the time I was between my sophomore and junior years in college.

Four months later I was elected president of the California Association of Blind Students and a member of the board of directors of the NFB of California, where I remained for the next eight years. The following July at the national convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, I was elected to the student division's national board. After one term I was elected president of the organization in 1993 and served until 1996. During those years I was in law school and was licensed to practice law in 1999.

Within twenty-four hours of the publication of the California Bar Examination results, I was offered a job as an attorney. After three years the networking strategy that I used and have shared here as I have refined it drew the attention of people in Washington, and I moved from working in California to our nation's capital to become the first and only person ever to serve as general counsel and director of programs for what was then the 60,000-member American Association of People with Disabilities. In two years in that capacity, I guided a career-oriented mentoring program from serving 1,600 students and job-seekers in thirty-two states and the District of Columbia to encompassing service to almost 10,000 mentee participants from all fifty states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and nineteen foreign countries.

As my network grew even larger in just over two years, I was named special assistant to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice and was commissioned by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. Within nineteen months I was promoted to special counsel and was commissioned by now Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Most recently I have been named the associate director on disabilities with the domestic policy council in the White House. Meanwhile my once small network now spans the world to five continents, and my communications reach more than 1.5 million individuals whenever I distribute information to my network of contacts. I have also appeared on radio and television and in newspapers and magazines, promoting greater access by people with disabilities to every aspect of community life.

All of this is to say that success is within the grasp of anyone willing to attain it. I will be forever grateful for the leadership training I received through my involvement in the pioneering and groundbreaking work of the National Federation of the Blind at all levels. Each day as I move forward in trying to make a difference, I carry with me the things I have learned from leaders like Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who personally mentored me early on; NFB President Marc Maurer; and others. Sixteen years ago, if anyone had told me that I would get to interact with the president of the United States, meet with cabinet-level secretaries and other senior-level federal government officials, travel the country and give speeches to a total thus far of more than 25,000 people, work in partnership with organization leaders across the country and from different parts of the world, and help forge broad-based policies affecting the lives of millions, I would never have believed it. But that is now the reality, and this is just the beginning.

Together we will continue to change what it means to be blind and to love and support one another as we maintain and expand our individual and collective commitment to take our place as leaders in society. This is not merely a dream; it happens every day. That is the power behind being an active and integral part of the National Federation of the Blind.