For some, networking is an instinctive and enjoyable activity. For many, though, it is decidedly uncomfortable. A networking event can feel awkward at best or manipulative and insincere at worst. Networking skills, however, are critical to many aspects of career growth and success. With the right mindset and with a few methodologies to follow, anyone can be successful at networking at a conference, within your own company network, or even in remote situations.
What is networking? Networking is about creating relationships in which there is a mutual exchange of value. Note the focus on relationships. It is not a transactional activity, focused on creating a stack of business cards that you can use later when you have a specific need. While many people imagine a crowded happy hour at an industry event when they hear “networking,” the skills are used much more broadly. Yes, making new contacts at that happy hour is a common networking opportunity, but so are small group discussions at an industry event, one-on-one meetings within your company, and working side-by-side with others outside your work group. Each of these settings is an opportunity to build relationships through which you can help each other achieve goals.
Keep these rules in mind as you approach networking opportunities:
Beware of assumptions you may make about people. Approach everyone new that you meet with a “people curious” mindset. Before you make any assumptions about how helpful they can be to you, focus first on just finding out who they are, what they do, and what experiences they have. Share the details of your own background as well. Since your goal is to develop mutually beneficial relationships, do not enter an initial meeting at a group event with a specific knowledge goal in mind. The goal is simply to meet new people.
Never dismiss anyone. Similarly, never dismiss anyone as not deserving of your time or attention. This is basic respect. Everyone has something they can teach you, from the receptionist to the CEO. Similarly, there are ways you can be helpful to almost everyone. The more you learn about someone, the more touch points you will uncover.
Never waste someone’s time. Be as respectful of the value of others’ time as you would like them to be of yours. In a casual setting like a Happy Hour, don’t force conversation nor monopolize someone’s time. In scheduled conversations, come prepared.
Networking is different from mentoring, although it is common for mentoring relationships to grow from networking activities. Within your organization, it is important to network with others who can help you learn new skills or knowledge. Begin by looking inward. Define for yourself what you want to learn and why. Are you trying to understand some aspect of your company’s business? Are you trying to learn a new skill or function? What are you trying to achieve? Is it your own career development or the ability to execute in your current role most effectively? Once the “what” and the “why” are understood, you can better capture your knowledge gaps and who might best fill them (note that one contact can help you find others who can help). Always be upfront with someone about why you want to meet with them and be prepared for scheduled discussions. Then ask if there is anything you can do to help them<em-dash>and if they call on you later, reciprocate! One method that can be very effective is volunteering to work on committees or projects. This gives you the chance to work together with new people. Working together toward a goal is a great way to build relationships and lets you demonstrate your own skills and your dependability.
Networking is about creating relationships in which there is a mutual exchange of value.
Building on the discussion around networking internally, approach interactions with new people at an external event with the mindset of being “people curious” first. This means getting to know them as human beings first and people who can be of help to you second. Ask them the kinds of questions you’d like to be asked in that situation: begin with basic company affiliation, background, what brought them to this event, what they’ve found interesting thus far, etc. Your goal is to always be looking for something you can learn from them and something you can teach them. Don’t try to get to any specific “ask” right away. You are building a relationship, which takes time and probably several touch points. As with internal activities, look for opportunities to volunteer with industry groups. They always need volunteers and working with someone is a great way to build a solid relationship. If you do volunteer, truly commit and deliver on those commitments. Demonstrating dependability and follow through will strengthen the value of those relationships.
The same rules generally apply in virtual settings, except that you must listen more closely and pay as close attention as you can to body language. Treat virtual meetings the same way you might a large in-person meeting. Initiate direct chat sidebars with people you already know. Make sure you share enough about yourself so that people you don’t know are aware of what you bring to the table—and be open to direct chats with new people. Those virtual break outs are a great chance to further build relationships. Again, you are working together toward a specific goal. Just make sure you focus on the task at hand on the call and follow up offline later if there are different topics you would like to discuss.
While networking can be an uncomfortable activity for many, viewing networking as an opportunity to build long term, mutually beneficial relationships can ease the process. Be authentically curious about the people you meet, look for ways you can be helpful in return, and always follow through on your commitments. Following this approach can not only help you improve your skills, meet your goals, and advance your career, but, as importantly, develop the friendships and relationships that make work truly worthwhile.