When I was in big consulting, we were taught how "presence" is critical to providing excellent client service. There were big picture ideas like "make the person know you're listening and want to learn learn more" to tips like "put your phone face down," "take handwritten notes," and "look the presenter in the eye."
As I have worked to get my business up and running over the past four months, I have discovered a subtler, more pervasive element of "presence." It's the presence that builds a community of supporters around you in every facet of your life. When there are other obligations; when you can't figure out how you will catch-up, you still need to "come up for air", so-to-speak - breathe, relax, and remove distractions for a little time to offer your presence to the people around you.
I attended an event recently where there were four sponsoring entities. I know for a fact that two of the entities are struggling - one reputationally and one financially. The other two are doing quite well - strong growth, good brand, community support, etc. Two entities had senior leaders show up to the event, two didn't. Guess who was who.
I'm sure if you spoke with the two who didn't attend they would offer good reasons - I won't even call them excuses, because it's really the judgement they made on tradeoffs of attending or not. No doubt there were other pressing matters they needed to attend to and the individuals may even have made a decision I would agree with if I knew all the details.
But to the people at an event, appearance is binary. They didn't need to be there to have a meaningful discussion or present a new cutting edge viewpoint. They needed to say "hi, thanks for coming", and shake a few hands. They needed to be recognized by a few other attendees. That would have made it feel like they were part of it. Their printed logo on a flyer did not.
The way I have internalized this is to participate in the community as much as possible. Go to events without the intent of selling yourself. Be seen. Say hi. Follow-up with emails or tweets. And don't do it once - go to events where you will see the same people 3, 4, 5 times. Become a known entity. Care about the people you meet.
It takes time but people gradually begin to trust you; to know that you are grateful to get to know them and their interests in the community. Two months ago I doubted I was spending my time in the right places. But as I get further into this journey, I realize that even if I don't make a new connection; even if I only see someone I saw two weeks ago and shake hands and talk for 30 seconds, it is usually worth it.
This will get more complex as things get busier, no doubt. I will choose (and have chosen) family and work events over another breakfast or cocktail hour and I will continue to do so. But when figuring out how to balance work and life, I will save time to just be places; to relax, breathe, and show up smiling and excited to see friends and acquaintances and to meet new people.