If you often shudder when you hear the word “networking,” some days the last thing you want to do is smile and be “on.” But even for those who find networking to be a discomforting challenge, it’s something we need to do, necessary for our careers and our happiness.
Being connected to people makes us more productive, well-rounded and happier. Many people mistakenly believe that having a network only helps when you are looking for a job — and yes, it does help with that, but that is a limiting perspective. Your network can also help you find sales, business development leads, a mentor or a sounding board when you need advice on making a professional or personal decision.
Sometimes you need insight into a specific industry, perhaps when you’re interviewing for a job in that field. Sometimes networking isn’t directly related to your career, for example when you volunteer with a non-profit or make friends with the parents of your children’s classmates. One of my favorite things about networking is when I get to connect two people that I believe can be of help to each other.
Improving the Process
Here are six time-tested ways to make networking more enjoyable and, more importantly, effective.
- Scan the Room. Walk in to a networking event knowing that most people are probably very similar to you: slightly uncomfortable, not feeling especially confident. Looking for a person who is also by themselves is often the easiest way to get started, as he or she is probably looking for someone to talk with also. A second option is to join a small group of three or four people. If they don’t greet you right away, wait for a break in the conversation and introduce yourself. They aren’t going to ignore you or walk away, I promise, and once you get past the introduction things get easier.
- Seize the Moment. Networking isn’t just structured events. Every place and every situation is an opportunity to network; it doesn’t have to be a professional outing. You could build a large part of your network at your child’s soccer games, for example. Remember to put away the phone and be aware of the people around you.
- Expand Your Bubble. Don’t look only for networking events or people that are like you. It’s always a good idea to network with people from different fields, different industries, different stages of life. You never know what they might be able to offer you — or what you can offer them. This holds true especially if you have a mutual contact because you already have something in common to build on. Recently, I had dinner with someone that a friend connected me with. On paper we had nothing in common but when we met we discovered that we each had started a business in the last few months, were passionate about some of the same topics and had strengths that could benefit the other.
- Think of Their Needs. Ideally, networking should be mutually beneficial. You each should get something out of the encounter or experience. I learned the term “give to get” from one of my great mentors and I use that idea when I network. As you build a relationship with someone new, think about how you could be helpful to them. Maybe you find an article that you think they would find interesting. Of if they mention they are looking for a strong candidate for a particular position, check your contacts to see if anyone fits. Giving is not only a good thing in itself, it also makes it much easier to reach out when you need something.
- Take it Deeper. Go beyond just getting business cards or connecting on LinkedIn. I have piles and piles of business cards, some of them from people I can’t even remember meeting. How is that going to help me if I try to network with them? Same thing on LinkedIn. I really try to only accept connections from people who I know well enough to feel comfortable introducing someone else to them. That comes from having a conversation, written or verbal, and getting to know the people you are networking with. (That said, if you write me a good introduction on LinkedIn on why you want to be connected – that works for me too!)
- Give it Time. Don’t expect everything to happen instantly. Sometimes relationships take time to cultivate. Take the time to follow up with an email or a phone call. Give the relationship some time and don’t give up before you give it a chance. Some people you’ll hit it off with right away, others take time.
The benefits of networking totally outweigh the challenges. It’s a terrific thing to have people easily available that you can reach out to for advice or encouragement on a daily basis. Life and career are much more enjoyable and easier to navigate with the support of a network of friends and colleagues.