Forging lasting relationships. Building a rapport with a new friend, colleague, or peer. Meeting your next mentor. All of these are made possible by networking.
What is networking and how do I get started?
In short, networking is making connections.
Networking might make you think of a sleazy guy handing out business cards and bragging about his latest success to anyone who will listen, but it doesn’t have to be like that.
Your network is simply your connections. It’s who you know, and who knows you. It’s not about slinging business cards; it’s about meeting people so that you have access to knowledge, opportunities, advice, and even friendship.
The good news is: you already have a network! Anyone you’ve worked with who you maintained a connection or good rapport with, anyone you work with now, people you went to college with, your mom’s friend who owns a local business… your network already exists and is probably already affording you benefits even if you haven’t thought of them that way before.
The benefits of networking are innumerable; the broader and deeper your network, the more access to opportunity and assistance you have. Think about it: when it comes time to move, would you rather have one friend to help you, or 10?
If you found yourself in need of help in your career — a reference, a job, advice, or a mentor — having a curated, nurtured network will set you up for success.
Networking is the art of forging lasting connections
As a child, making new friends is relatively easy. You might’ve needed an extra player in your game, or someone to play the evil witch during dress-up hour, and that person who filled that need became your new friend. Another easy place to make friends was the lunchroom, swapping snacks and sandwiches and bonding over the designs on your lunchboxes. Next thing you knew, your parents called theirs and you were having sleepovers every weekend.
If only it were that easy for adults!
We can take a page from the grade school book in recognizing that the quickest way to make a connection is mutuality. Mutual benefit, mutual value, mutual enjoyment — all of which brings the added value of companionship.
When you meet someone with similar interests, who works in your industry, who does something you aspire someday to do, this person becomes valuable to you. They are rich with information, insight, and connections of their own.
You are that person to someone. You are doing something they aspire to, you know something they don’t, and you are a valuable asset in someone’s network.
How to use networking to forge lasting professional connections
For some, the idea of networking is cringe-worthy. Stuffy events, awkward ice-breakers, and the idea of walking around a room like you “need” people’s help in your career is a negative start to the most valuable activity in your career.
But ask any successful person the keys to their success, and they will undoubtedly reference their network.
It is worth getting over the awkwardness and the stress, because your network is truly the key to an amazing career filled with support, opportunities, and flexibility.
Old-school networking looks a bit like this:
- Jen walks into the networking cocktail event, dressed in a business-casual suit, armed with business cards and a sticker name tag.
- She nervously approaches other women who look like her, naturally drawn to what she knows.
- They talk politely about where they’re from, what they do for work, and exchange business cards.
- As the night goes on, Jen has more of the same conversations with people whose faces blur into one another. A few times, she meets the same person and completely forgets their name, brushing it off as being “terrible with names.”
- At the end of the night, Jen has met a lot of new faces, doesn’t remember most of them, and wonders why she went to the networking event at all.
This kind of networking is not productive and won’t give you the kinds of results you want. You aren’t forging true connections; you’re just collecting business cards.
When you go to a networking event, you want to present your best self and have the goal of making real connections with a few people. It’s quality, not quantity. It’s thinking about the value you offer other people.
What you need to network successfully:
- Business cards. Business cards might feel old school, but it’s the easiest way to share your contact info with a new acquaintance. Depending on where you work, business cards may be provided for you, but if it’s up to you, you’re in luck. Stand out with a slick set of business cards from Moo.com, customized to fit your style and skills. Make sure the business card lists your:
- Full name
- Email address
- Phone number
- Website or primary web address like LinkedIn or Twitter
- Your job title or, if unemployed or a student, 1 – 3 skills you possess or the degree you hold
- Updated LinkedIn profile. If the last time you updated your LinkedIn was three years ago when you first created it, it’s time to update your profile. People will google you, and they will look at your Linkedin. Here are the key areas to focus on:
- Profile photo – Classy, professional, personal.
- Job title and header – Say something not just about your current position, but about your particular voice. That could be funny, creative, minimalist, or technical. Make it yours.
- Skills and endorsements – I’m always shocked when my peers take the time to endorse me for skills I list in this section, so trust that if you put it out there (and you truly can deliver), those endorsements will paint an attractive picture of your capabilities.
- Portfolio – Links, documents, and media in this section are eye-candy to recruiters, mentors, potential employers, and peers. Show your stuff in this section.
- A great outfit you feel good in. Whether at an event or a 1:1 coffee with a mentor, looking sharp shows that you respect the environment you inhabit. Even if your typical style is jeans and a tee, dress up your nicest pair of jeans with an attractive, business-casual shirt and a nice pair of shoes.
Now that you know can answer the question “what is networking” and you have what you’ll need to be successful, here are our top 5 tips for making the most of every networking opportunity.
Wherever you go to network, it’s imperative that you do your due diligence ahead of time. If Oprah asked you to lunch, would you come prepared with questions or would you just wing it and ask her about the weather?
Networking events are often a blur of similar people, positions, and intentions, but doing research ahead of time could help you discover key professionals to meet and how you two might mutually benefit each other.
Before you meet a potential mentor or new connection for coffee, show that person your utmost respect by coming prepared to congratulate them on their latest accomplishment or to ask them smart, specific questions on an area of subject matter expertise.
A few questions to get you started:
- Who are you meeting?
- Why are you meeting them?
- What questions do you have or information you’d like to learn?
- What value could you provide this person?
- What value could they provide you?
- What are a couple key personal details that you can reference to show you remember them?
Science of People has an incredible guide to networking, but this one step is a game-changer you won’t find in any other tips round-up. Creating a relationship action plan is akin to creating the intermittent milestones to your larger goals.
Instead of trying to simply meet everyone you can, keep track of exactly who you want to meet, and be as specific as you can. Who do you want to meet? Why? What would you do/say/ask if you got the chance to meet them, and why?
This activity is less about stalking the professionals you want to create relationships with, but rather setting goals for your networking practice that keep you on-track and from feeling discouraged. Going to networking events and taking lunch meetings gets redundant quickly, so having targets on paper will keep you focused on the bigger picture.
Going into a networking environment (a meetup, a 1:1 meeting, a conference, etc) is only the first step. Once you’ve arrived, it’s up to you to create and maintain a friendly, connected, and focused conversation environment with each person you meet.
Numerous books have been written on the art of conversation, but there are a few best-practices that are time-tested:
- Make soft eye contact with the person you’re speaking directly with, but also the other people involved in the conversation, focusing lightly on each of them as you talk to foster inclusivity.
- Ask open-ended questions about topics that breed positivity, such as personal interests, pets and family, adventure and hobbies, and exciting opportunities. Avoid negativity or gossip.
- Listen completely before offering a response. As natural as it may seem to interject in a lively conversation, hearing out a new friend or acquaintance shows them you’re interested in what they have to say, not just what you have to say in return.
It’s wonderful to have professional connections to rely on, but even better to be the person that others rely on. Think you don’t have anything to offer? Think again!
You have skills, connections, free time, resources, and a listening heart that can be of service to someone in need. When someone in your network reaches out for help, do what you can to advance them on their quest. Generosity tends to come back to you threefold.
Did your mother encourage you to write thank you notes as a kid? Implement that practice into your networking workflow and you’ll see a dramatic increase in successful retention of connections.
After a networking event, one-on-one coffee meeting, or spontaneous acquaintance, send a thoughtful follow-up email no later than 24 hours after your meeting. Even if the person is someone you may not contact for some time, or if that person may not be one of your direct network connections, maintaining a built bridge is easier than constantly building new ones in times of need.
Not sure what to write in your follow-up email? Here’s a template to get you started:
- Address them personally.
- Thank them for the opportunity to get to know them. Mention the event or place where you met and a detail from the event both of you would remember.
- Refresh what you talked about in 1 – 2 sentences. If you learned something valuable or had a takeaway from the conversation, share it in your message.
- If you’d like to meet again, propose a follow-up meeting or activity.
- If you won’t be following up anytime soon, wish them well on something specific they mentioned, like a trip, running race, or work project.
- Sign your letter sincerely, not with ‘kind regards.’ Kind regards is out, more informal signatures like, ‘With gratitude,’ ‘Have a wonderful week,’ and ‘Until next time,’ are polite, friendly ways to conclude an email.
Introverted, extroverted; employed, seeking employment; no matter where you are in your professional career, building your network is the best investment in your future.