Since I was in junior high school, I have consistently volunteered or worked for a nonprofit organization. And I have spent a significant portion of my adult life volunteering for various causes I hold dear. I even did a full stint as a nonprofit developer in the Peace Corps after college.
It’s fair to say service is in my blood, so after law school, I never planned to practice law. Instead, I was going to work in international aid development and live abroad, returning to Arkansas only for major holidays or select family events.
Yet, here I sit. Working 13 miles from my hometown high school, an in-house electric utility lawyer — a practice I didn’t even know existed when I graduated. And I love what I do. The funniest part about it? I can trace my entire career trajectory to a single connection I made with one person that created an introduction to another. That second person — without my knowing — opened a door for me that ensured I had a shot at a job I eventually got. That job got me another job, which led to another job and another until I landed in the role I am now fortunate to hold, working for a company whose corporate values align with my personal values — basically, my personal sweet spot.
At the time, almost 17 years ago, I had no idea it would work out that way; I was just doing something I loved — volunteering. I was planting trees in downtown Little Rock with an organization I still volunteer for when I met a lawyer who worked for one of Arkansas’ most prestigious firms.
Fast forward months later, I was interviewing for law clerk jobs and that firm was one in which I was very interested. During the interview, my volunteer work, including for Tree Streets, came up, and my community service helped me get the job.
To make a long story much shorter than I usually tell it: It was a lawyer at that firm who provided a reference for me when I applied for my first grown-up-lawyer job after I finished school. I know now, thanks to my former boss telling me, that I would not have gotten that interview had he — Walter G. Wright Jr. — not provided me with a good reference. In fact, Walter was not listed as one of my references at the time.
That experience, and a dozen others I could share over coffee sometime, taught me a few things that have guided my career decisions and philanthropic endeavors ever since. With full credit to Malcolm Gladwell’s book "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," there are people in the world who gets things done, so-called "connectors," and they use their own social, cultural, political and other influence based on their natural personality traits to introduce people who might not otherwise know or interact with one another.
I love the idea of connectors as people who bring others together, and with nothing but respect for Mr. Gladwell, I believe anyone can be a connector — even a power connector — regardless of their intrinsic personality. The tips below are a compilation from various sources and content I have read over the years. If you’re interested in learning more about the topic, let’s connect!
How to be a power connector:
1. Meet people doing things you love.
For me, it’s volunteering. I’ve been a "joiner" as my mom calls it, my whole life. I love doing things that help others and I enjoy being around the people who are naturally drawn to those same causes. We already have a shared connection that often (and effortlessly) translates into bigger connections to each other and others in various circles.
2. Cultivate relationships, not just connections.
In the digital age, true, deep-rooted relationships are coveted. While handing out business cards at happy hour might be a great way to exchange contact information, true power connections come from cultivating relationships with others in an authentic way.
I have a strong support system: my husband, who sugarcoats nothing; my family, who gently nudges and supports me no matter what; my lifelong friends, who give me sustenance; my energy industry backers, who help me be better at my work; and my powerhouse executive girlfriends, who propel me with group texts, weekly lunches and in other big and quiet ways all the time. If you don’t have a similar community already, start with one person you admire and who understands you and let it grow from there.
3. Be a helper.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” If true, that means there is a special place in heaven for women who do. Looking for ways to rise by lifting others is critical to helping everyone do better, together.
4. Be hyper-curious.
Ask questions. Seek critical feedback. Have a mentor or personal board of directors for various areas of your life, and when they speak, either directly or indirectly, listen to them. Curiosity about how to get better, how to support others and how to advance your own development will pay dividends.
5. Embrace simplicity and synchronicity.
We are usually more effective when the things we do align with our natural tendencies. If you're an introvert, it’s likely you are more intentional about the connections you make. If so, strategically leverage that to connect yourself and others in an authentic way. For extroverts, you likely already have lots of connections, and with some transparency and intention behind it, you can turn those into true relationships.
These days Walter and I are now friends and neighbors, in addition to professional connections. And while he humbly discounts the support he provided me all those years ago, here’s what I know for sure: I had a leg up in that first interview because I volunteered for an organization that I cared about and the firm did, too. I met Walter through that job, and because I worked hard for him, he remembered me and helped me out when he got the chance.
Now I look for chances to do the same for others and hope you will join me while we lift as we climb.
Lori L. Burrows is the vice president and general counsel for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, a nonprofit electric cooperative that serves nearly 1.3 million Arkansans with reliable, affordable and responsible electricity. You can follow her on LinkedIn.