Are you connecting with the right people and ideas? Does networking energize your thinking? Exposing yourself and your ideas to new audiences will stretch you. It means getting out of your comfort zone. For many of us that feels difficult. But there are a few simple steps you can take to make networking a breeze.
It is worth making the effort. Researchers like Professor Mark Granovetter have found that people with large, diverse networks are better at spotting and acting on opportunities. Their initiatives are more likely to grow and those on a career ladder find it easier to get jobs. In our increasingly fluid labour markets having a good network is no longer an option.
What exactly is networking?
Networking is simply the process of creating a group of acquaintances and associates and keeping in touch for mutual benefit. It’s based on the question “How can I help?” not “What can I get?” You may find that quite a relief. People often think that networking means going out to impress and sell. It feels much easier when you realise it’s about going out to help other people.
So, relax. It’s not about you. It is about sharing information and win-win relationships. Don’t expect opportunities to come along straight away or directly. Networking is more indirect and takes longer. It is about putting yourself in the frame so that when opportunities do come along you are top of mind. If luck = preparation + opportunity, think of networking as a way to increase your opportunity odds.
8 steps to brilliant networking
While great networking is about being yourself and being helpful, there’s no question that you’ll get a lot more out of it if you apply a little strategy to your approach. Just follow those top tips:
1. Be curious
Be really interested in other people, their experience, background, and what you can learn from them. Go beyond the obvious. Most people love to talk about themselves and really appreciate the attention. They feel better about you as a result as well. You need to ask open questions. That is questions that can’t be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You will be surprised at what you learn and the results will often help you to make great connections. Here are some great questions to ask if you’re stuck:
- What do you like best about what you do?
- If you were guaranteed not to fail, what one thing would you do?
- What are the main future trends likely to impact your area of work?
2. Be generous
After you’ve got to know people, think about what you can do for them. Perhaps you’ve spotted an article or blog that they’d find useful – send it to them. Or you know someone who may be able to help them with a problem they are struggling with – put them in touch. All of those things take you very little time and make their life easier. Wouldn’t it be great if your network started looking out for you in the same way? In time, they will!
3. Keep in touch
Have a process for capturing contact details and following-up after networking events. Business cards are essential. If other people don’t have them, just write a quick note somewhere. If you’re meeting a lot of people it can help to quickly put a few notes about what you discussed on their business card as a reminder. But always ask if that’s OK. In some cultures defacing a business card is regarded as highly offensive. Follow up within a few days of the event. Send a friendly email or connect via LinkedIn. If you’d love to continue the conversation suggest meeting soon for coffee or skype.
4. Join LinkedIn
LinkedIn is the online network for professionals. It’s a fantastic networking tool, so much more than the online profile or CV which is at its core. Beyond that, you will have an up-to-date database of all the people you connect with and many of them will provide regular updates about their activities and progress. LinkedIn groups can provide a lively forum for niche professional discussions, new ideas and connections. You can also give and receive testimonials. Remember that your profile page is likely to come up on the first page of search results if anyone looks you up. So spend some time to get it right.
5. Map your network
Draw a map of your current network. Draw it as a diagram with you in the middle and your different networks branching out from there. Your branches can include professional and personal areas, clubs, associations, education – anywhere that you regularly talk to people. Separate each branch into an inner circle of people you know well and an outer circle of acquaintances. What does it look like? A dominant inner circle suggests that you surround yourself with people who are quite similar to you. That’s a great foundation, but you also need a strong outer circle to really benefit from new ideas and opportunities.
6. Get out of your comfort zone
Actively seek out networking opportunities that are on the edge of your current networks. Talk to those acquaintances in your outer circle and ask them for suggestions about where you could network. Remember, innovative thinking happens at the margins, where professions or academic disciplines collide.
7. Be prepared to talk about yourself
It’s always best to be yourself and let the conversation flow naturally. However, you want people to remember you and what you have to offer as well. So prepare and practice an elevator pitch – a 30 second introduction. It should include who you are, what you do and something that makes you special. Say it with a smile and adapt the pitch subtly to fit the interests of the person you’re talking to.
8. Broadcast what you want or need
Drop small problems you’re currently struggling with into the conversation. You never know who is going to have the idea or connection that will make the difference. And a little honesty and vulnerability adds depth to relationships which could otherwise be superficial. Kathryn Minshew describes in the Harvard Business Review how she told over a hundred people that she was looking to land a partnership with Yahoo. With 97 of the people the conversation moved on, but 3 did have connections and made introductions which resulted in the partnership Kathryn was looking for. The thing is, she wouldn’t have assumed those 3 people were the ones to target for that information. Unexpected, random connections can be the most powerful.
So are you ready to get networking? Remember to have a strategy. But also keep it natural and keep it random. If you follow those simple tips your business or career will benefit and you will meet some great people and enjoy yourself as well.