Don’t just shake hands and exchange cards—learn to create meaningful connections to boost professional success
What is networking?
Your “network” is the group of individuals you’re connected to that goes beyond those you interact with daily. These are people you can call on to answer questions, circulate news and connect you with people inside their network.
The act of “networking” is your effort to create such a group. However, it’s gotten a bad rap lately, because some think of networking as a way of using others to get what they want; they “work” the room disingenuously with shifty eyes, always looking for big fish who will listen to their pitch—if your job title doesn’t wow them, they throw you back in the pond.
These people are missing the whole point. It’s not about selling yourself to the VIPs in the room. The purpose of networking is to share stories that will build a connection between two or more people for mutual benefit. How do you achieve this? By talking to someone and figuring out what you have to give.
Why is networking important?
Success in today’s professional world is dependent on our interactions with others. We need strong relationships, fresh ideas, trusted advice, access to opportunities and a visible profile. Without putting in effort to create a strong network, this professional support is difficult to come by.
According to Adam Grant—Wharton professor, New York Times bestselling author and one of HR’s most influential international thinkers—people at work can be divided into three categories: takers, matchers or givers. Takers are only interested in what they can get from others; matchers want an even give-and-take; and givers contribute without expectation or agenda. Being in the last category is what really drives success.
“If we create networks with the sole intention of getting something, we won’t succeed,” Grant says in his book, Give and Take, which outline studies and stories that tie success at work to a giving attitude. “The benefits ensue from investments in meaningful activities and relationships.”
With that purpose in mind, here are seven steps to get your meaningful networking started.
1) Embrace the awkward
It’s hard to know who to approach and how, especially when it seems like everyone else is well acquainted. Truth is, you are not alone. The whole point of networking is to get out of your comfort zone, so many in the room will feel the same way. Don’t expect this to change; just remind yourself the uncomfortable sensation is normal.
2) Do the rounds
Even powerful executives like Kirstine Stewart, former head of English language services at CBC and current VP of Media at Twitter, don’t like networking. But, there are ways to find purpose and goal “I go to industry events to say hello and be friendly, but I’ve never gone networking for the sake of it,” she says. “My first boss’s rule of thumb was go around the room once, go around the room twice and then leave. I loved that because it gives you a goal. If you find someone interesting to talk to, then you can throw that rule out the window.” Complete your two rounds and give yourself permission to leave early, but stick around for those one or two key conversations.
3) Break the ice
During rounds, you need to find ways to insert yourself into conversations. Smile, keep your body language open and try a positive first line (i.e. You seem like a friendly face in this crowded place. Mind if I join you?). Genuine compliments give you an opening to start. If need more, locate one of the event organizers and ask him or her to introduce you to the speaker (if there is one) or someone within a specific organization (this is where a little advanced research into who’s attending is of great benefit), and go from there.
4) Remember the bigger picture
With every interaction, it’s key to ask yourself: What is this person looking to achieve professionally? Could I help with any of those goals? Do I know someone else who could? Now you have a purpose for each conversation, above and beyond the small talk and card swapping. Be curious. Ask questions. Remember: the best way to appear interesting is to be interested.
5) Know your story
You need something to share as well—not a pitch, but an authentic few lines to properly reflect who you are: where you’ve come from, are now and hope to go next. More than job titles, your story should speak of your values.
6) Connect in more ways than one
If someone gives you a card, it might get lost in a purse, wallet or desk. A social media connection is something you can be sure to keep. To ensure you don’t forget, add the person to LinkedIn right after you shake hands and part ways.
A card or virtual connection is great, but it’s important to personally follow it up. Send an email or direct message. Include something specific from the conversation, along with a thank you. Mention your desire to lend professional assistance in any way you can. The message will let your connection remember you positively and affirm you’re someone they can reach out to when they need help. The network roadway is built.
Follow these seven steps and take advantage of networking events in your city, which are often specific to industry, profession or demographic. Search the web or ask around for which ones might best suit you. But, don’t forget: networking happens everywhere, whether in formal situations like business events, awards and conferences, or informally by joining a volunteer organization or participating in a work social activity. If you’re always on the look out for ways to connect and help open doors for those around you, you’re much more likely to gather a sprawling network to boost your career when you need it most.