We all know that networking is something that can help us have more successful careers. And yet, the biggest mistake people make is to focus on networking only when they are in the job market. The most powerful network is one which is built and maintained over time.
Most of us have it down on the “to do” list somewhere. But things on our “to do” list that don’t have a timeline attached tend to slip. And slip and slip…… Especially if they are things we dread. I know how personally difficult face to face networking can be for me.
But regardless of how much the introvert in you begs to be let off the hook, you’ll be doing yourself a major disservice by giving in to your desire to opt out of networking. The good news is, there are plenty of ways to network that don’t require face to face contact. There are also are some ways to make that face to face networking a little bit easier.
Where to find new contacts for your network
Face to face
While there are specific places which are good for networking, start by realizing that your potential network is everywhere. We meet people wherever we go – at the coffee shop, on the airplane, in line at the Apple store. That doesn’t mean you should give your networking pitch to everyone you meet. It just means you should be on the lookout for opportunities when you meet people while doing your day to day activities.
On the job, you will regularly meet people who can help you on your career journey. Peers, suppliers, partners, customers all have network potential. Sharing your expertise and asking for others to share theirs is a great starting point. Ask questions – not only about the project you are working on but about how other parts of the business work, other job roles contribute, or how partners, suppliers, customers are experiencing working with your company and their own.
Wherever you find birds of a feather – people who have something specific in common with you. That could be working in the same industry or job role, or it might be a because you went to the same school. That could be an industry or domain event, small or large. Meet-ups are great because they tend to be small groups with very specific focus. Training courses are a good place to meet new people who are in a similar career trajectory. Alumni events will enable you to meet people from your school who are potentially further on in their careers.
Job fairs are an important source for face to face connection when you are in the market. And finally, there are no lack of pure networking events to choose from. Actually, there are so many networking events you can choose from it can be quite overwhelming. Some people enjoy “happy hour” type events which are a relaxed way of meeting new people. If you are a bit of an introvert, that may be a tough one. Personally, I prefer more specific networking events, where there is a compelling speaker and a topic. That gives me a purpose – and something to talk about.
LinkedIn is the largest professional network with more than 546 million users in over 200 countries. It’s a lot more than a job portal – in fact their motto is “to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”. It’s a great place to establish and maintain your career profile so people can quickly and easily see “who you are”. There are specific communities for …… just about everything. Whatever your chosen domain or industry, chances are high that you can find a LinkedIn group focused on just that, providing countless opportunities for making new connections and learning from other people. To best leverage the possibilities on LinkedIn, join a few communities and start to participate in the conversation!
Professional associations and communities are another way to connect and grow your network and career. A simple search on Google will usually render a long list of potential associations you can join. Take the time to identify the associations with a strong following and to understand membership requirements. Some associations are free, others require annual membership fees.
Create an elevator pitch
It’s helpful to have a simple, standard way of introducing yourself to new people in a networking context. Build an “elevator pitch” – a short, 30 second to 1 minute, paragraph to introduce yourself with key information.
Your elevator pitch has a few key elements. You may not want to share all the elements with each person you meet, but once you have learned your pitch by heart, it will be easy to customize it depending on the situation.
Start with your name and current status or job title – if you are a student, you would provide the year of your studies along with your major. Then a really short career “history” – for example, “I’ve been a marketer for 20 years and have done many different roles like product marketing, campaign management and partner marketing.” As a student, you might mention how many internships you’ve done or talk about other things you have studied.
Now you’re going to add a sentence about what you are really good at – what makes you stand out from others? For example, I might say something about really enjoying teaching and lead that right into my goal – transitioning to a new career in training and coaching. Finally, wrap that up with a motivation. In my case, it would be how motivated I am to share the quarter century of experience I have from a successful career in a corporate environment and help others to succeed.
Let’s look at the final result:
My name is Angela Fresne and I am a life and career coach as well as a professional skills trainer. I recently left IBM after 24 years as a successful marketer in many different roles - international and local. I really enjoy teaching and that’s why I am transitioning to this new career with a goal to work full time as a coach and trainer. I want to focus this next chapter on sharing what I have learned and helping others to succeed in their careers.
Engage the conversation
Reaching out to people that you don’t know, or barely know, can be hard for introverts. It’s not easy to engage conversation for the first time, but there are some simple formulas you can use to do that.
On the job, simply show curiosity for other people’s roles and contributions to the organization. You can start by making an observation about something the person presented or said in a meeting. You can also simply ask the person if they would mind telling you more about their job role. The same goes for people you meet in training courses. In that case, if the training is cross organizational, you can ask about what it’s like working for their organization, or ask about their career trajectory. Most people are quite happy to talk about themselves and their work.
At conferences and other events, you can reference the content that is being presented to engage in conversation. “What did you think about…..”. If you hear someone speak that you’d like to connect with, approach them with a question or comment about their presentation, or their opinion about a related topic they didn’t cover.
At networking events, and other places where you are confronted with meeting random new people, there are many ways to start a conversation. Here are just a few:
· Make an observation about the event – the food, the location, the temperature, the speaker….whatever you have noticed that others might be noticing too.
· Ask a simple question – what brought you here? What did you think about …..? How did you hear about this event? Are you enjoying the event?
· Compliment the person – love your clothes, shoes, bag, t-shirt, hair. Or even “you look so comfortable networking! I wish I felt that way.”
· Join a group who are having a good time – “you guys look like you’re having so much fun – do you mind if I join you?”
Don’t be afraid to ask for the best way to connect with someone you have met. Some may prefer to have you reach out on LinkedIn. Others will be willing to give you their email.
You may use LinkedIn to connect with people you have only “virtually” met as well. When you request a connection on LinkedIn, take the time to customize your request. Let the person know where you “met” them and why you would like to connect.
Deepen the connection
Reach out shortly after having met someone to establish the connection. There are a number of things you can do with a new contact to start to establish a deeper connection.
· Ask a question tailored to their experience/role/industry/career
o What communities for xyz would you recommend
o Career advice
o Information about their experience with a tool/methodology/product
· Share new content (a video, blog or article) about a topic you discussed or you think they might be interested in
· Offer your help in something you are an expert in
Maintaining the connection
Establish an active presence
From there on, it’s up to you to maintain regular contact. In general, whether you have met someone and know them very little or whether you are trying to stay connected to someone you know well, it’s a good idea to connect with them regularly, even when you don’t need anything specific. Especially when you don’t need anything specific.
LinkedIn makes it easy to stay in contact with anyone who is active on the platform. Like and comment on posts that your contacts have made. Turn on the notifications for change in status, birthday, etc. and send a personal message to key contacts.
Give to get
It’s critical to give to get. If you are simply “lurking” on social media to sell your services or follow others, the connections you have will be superficial. Share content on topics you are working on to create conversations. Voice your opinions about professional topics. Join targeted groups and maintain an active presence – either through launching your own conversations or participating actively in conversations launched by others.
Your more personal network – fellow students, people you worked closely with in the past, people you have established a strong personal connection with – requires maintenance as well. When it’s been awhile since you talked, take the time to catch up “live” – either in person or on the phone depending on locations. Even a 15-minute conversation every so often will maintain a spark of good will and demonstrate your interest in the individual.
Make it a routine
And that’s all there is to it! :-p Seriously, it’s a lot, except when it’s part of your routine. Establish routines to make it easier. Some examples:
· Schedule times during the week when you will learn and network on LinkedIn and professional communities
· Get into the habit of sharing interesting content that you come across
· Give yourself a goal for a specific number of networking events per month/semester/year
· Set reminders on your calendar for outreach to very important network contacts
Once you have gotten into the habit, just keep up the momentum. When life gets crazy and you lose track of your network, take the time to reconnect once things slow down. It’s never too late to get back in touch.