“It is not what you know – it is who you know“. These words of wisdom never get old. A lot of research shows that networking leads not only to career benefits (more job & business opportunities, faster advancement, and greater status and authority) and improved performance (broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate) but also to the improved quality of work and even increased job satisfaction. (1)
However, even when people know networking is beneficial to their careers, they often don’t do it, because they simply don’t love it. According to Harvard Business Review Research (1), professional networking makes people feel so dirty that they literally start thinking about taking a shower or brushing their teeth. Exploitative and inauthentic, – that is how they describe the experience. But does networking really have to be like this?
Everything can be as good as we want it to be, and this certainly applies to networking. Networking – if done in a right way – is much more than just a small talk. It can be also about finding new like-minded friends, learning from them and becoming better and more knowledgeable together.
In this post, I will share some networking basics & pro tips that will hopefully make your networking experience at the same time more efficient & pleasant.
Let’s start with the basics: networking consists of 3 main steps: 1) building your network; 2) maintaining your network; 3) leveraging your network.
Unfortunately, many of us forget about the second step and try to go from step 1 straight to step 3. Not surprisingly, most of the time this approach does not work. Moreover, it makes us feel “dirty” / exploitative or otherwise being used/exploited. The only way to leverage a full potential of your network is to continuously invest in these relationships to build trust, which requires time and effort from both sides.
How to build?
- Leverage your Personal Brand
Your brand is your calling card. It is what you’re known for and how people experience you. Building your brand is about bringing together who you are, what you do, how you do it and why you do it. First of all, strong personal brand positioning is a great starting point for a conversation. Highlighting your values & vision will make people curious to get to know you further and definitely help them remember you. Also, a powerful personal brand is an entrance ticket to many target audience events and community gatherings.
- Be Proactive
According to HBR, the executives who consistently rank in the top 20% of their companies in both performance and well-being have diverse networks made up of high-quality relationships with people who come from several different spheres and from up and down the corporate hierarchy (1) Therefore, stop focusing only on operational networking (connections with people relevant to your current job responsibilities) –focus on your interests & passions instead. Are you interested in industry digitalization / technology / entrepreneurship / leadership / personal development? There are so many events and communities you can join that will help you put your name out there and meet like-minded individuals to exchange knowledge and grow your network. Check events on FB, meetup & other event aggregator websites.
- Benefit from being a center of the network
If you can not find any networking events that match your interests and career aspirations, just start organizing them. No time or expertise? Not an excuse. It is not as difficult and time-consuming as it might seem. Moreover, a plenty of online resources and communities are there to help. It is not important how big or small, professional or casual these meetings will be. What really matters is that it will be your regular professional network building initiative. It is extremely beneficial to be a central point of the network responsible for its development as you get wider access to all the people and closer relationships with them. Moreover, while being a center of the network, you can affect its closeness (the proximity of the connections). Relatively close networks result in increased trust and referral value.
- Just ask
Providing that you have done your homework and you know what you want, do not be afraid just to contact people and ask. You will be surprised how many people will be eager to meet up, devote their time, energy & knowledge to help you. Shoot for the stars – create an ambitious list of mentors you want to learn from and identify some creative ways to reach them. The worst thing that can happen is getting no for an answer, which also sometimes can be helpful. Check out Jia Jiang view on learning from facing rejection (1).
- Appear warm and friendly
Human communication is over 55% visual (appearance, body language), 38% vocal (tone, a volume of voice) and 7% verbal (what you actually say). Not surprisingly, first impressions matter. Therefore, it is very important to start the conversation in a right way (using open body language, warm face expressions, confident voice, eye contact, strong but not aggressive handshake).
- Use the person’s name
Make a habit of repeating someone’s name, it breaks down the uncomfortable barriers and makes another person more relaxed and comfortable. It can be very difficult to keep in mind the names of 20 strangers you have just met, therefore try to follow certain rules that will help you remember new names more easily (repetition – repeating the person’s name several times in the course of conversation; associative memory – creating funny/memorable associations).
- Listen more than talk
When we meet someone new, we want to impress them so much that we start talking about ourselves all the time. Trying to convince them that we are interesting and likable, very often we actually forget to give our new friends enough time to talk about them. Moreover, when they do so, we are not listening carefully because in our heads we are planning the responses that will make us look knowledgeable and smart. As a result, at the end of the conversation, we know very little about our new acquaintances while the only thing they will remember about us is our inability to listen. Talk less about yourself & be a good listener.
- Be curious – ask questions
Curiosity is the best thing when it comes to networking. Every person has a story, every person knows something that you do not. When you start thinking like a journalist, who is trying to understand a person and his/her passions, networking becomes a game. Even though you know nothing about a certain topic/industry, do not be afraid to look silly and ask questions. Questions work better as a conversation booster if they are open-ended and profound – focused on getting more insights/ understanding/knowledge. Remember, “if you want to be interesting, be interested”. As a side benefit, you will be surprised how many things you can learn from others just by being curious.
- Find a common ground
Do not forget the simple scientifically proven concept – unconsciously we are attracted to people who are similar to us and even if we have a little piece of information about someone being similar to us, we seem to make more positive conclusions about him. Instead of building yourself up trying to make a good impression, focus on building bridges between your experience and theirs – how your interests and goals align with those of people you meet, how you can organically work together in shared struggles or challenges.
- Do your homework
Some networking events publish the list of attendants in advance. If you are looking for some strategic connections, this can be very handful. Do not miss a chance to analyze this guest list, highlighting people you find the most interesting to connect with. Make sure to do your research about them online and find good topics for a conversation (e.g. the last book they wrote / recent career change / the topic they care about). If no guest list is available, you can search the event agenda with names of the speakers or hashtags to identify the right people of your interest.
- Take notes
This point applies mostly to those who attend massive networking events/business conferences, where you have to meet 30/40+ new people a day. Eventually, it gets quite difficult to manage all these business cards and associate people you met with them – therefore making notes might be very helpful. If you received a person’s business card, take some notes about him/her and about the conversation you had.
How to maintain?
- Make it a system
We are all just humans, therefore we tend to forget things when life gets hectic. That is why we should develop a system that will make networking and keeping in touch easier. First of all, calendar your networking time. Booking time both for expanding your network and for working on its quality is critical. Instead of waiting for a free minute to send all these follow-up emails and reply to your linked-in messages, block one hour per week for this purpose to make it a regular commitment rather than a second-priority activity. The same applies to networking events: stop procrastinating or waiting for a right time – just make it a rule to attend at least one networking event per month and you will see a pay off very soon. Secondly, organize your contacts to track your follow-ups: to whom, what & when. You can choose a special software (e.g. contactually), leverage LinkedIn, create excel file or simply set regular reminders with push notifications.
- Follow up smarter & regularly
It sounds very easy — just follow up after your meetings and complete anything you promised. In reality, it is not easy at all: a shocking number of people don’t do it because they get busy and simply forget. Actually following up and doing what you said you would do will already put you in the top quartile and differentiate from others. It will be even better if you follow up in a smart way by showing interest in the person & bringing value: demonstrate that you were listening to him, refer to the topic that popped up during the conversation, share an article that could be useful or invite to the event of interest.
- Master the art of referrals
If you can refer one person to another, you can be helpful to both, which will strengthen your relationships with them. Therefore, always look a chance to connect people in your network who could benefit from each other. However, make sure to ask a permission from both first.
- Be a giver
Networking is about being shockingly helpful. Try to bring value to the person without expecting anything in return. If you start with the intention of meaningfully helping 10 people in a month instead of looking for a one-time mutually beneficial exchange, you will feel the boost in the quality & quantity of your network. The real value does not come from keeping score in your professional relationships – it comes from building trust and long-lasting relationships, which requires an investment up-front.
- Strengthen your weakest connections
The importance of weak connections has been scientifically proven a long time ago. However, nowadays it is as relevant as it was decades ago. You are more likely to get new opportunities or find a new job with a help of your old classmate rather than of your good friend. Therefore it is important regularly to reboost some of your old connections. Set a reminder in your calendar monthly to reach out to 5 people you haven’t spoken to in six months.
How to leverage?
- Ask for advice/help
Keep in mind that successful people love giving advice and sharing their expertise. Therefore, if they support your idea and like you personally, they will not say no. Just ask. Remember to keep your emails short, simple, and straight to the point and make it really easy for the other person to say yes or no without feeling bad.
- Get access to their contacts
“If you want to go somewhere, it is best to find someone who has already been there.” Unfortunately, you do not always know these people, but your network probably does. The quickest way is to ask them for an introduction.
- Get a referral
Did you know that most of the people find their job through networking and not applying directly on the board? A meaningful network makes a job search significantly easier. However, referrals are not only about jobs but also about customers and partners.
When you start looking at networking as a way to help people and exchange knowledge, it gets a lot easier and nicer. You never know who will change your career or life the most, therefore let’s start building our network and meeting new people to see where it brings us. Good luck with networking!
What’s the best networking advice you’ve ever received? Feel free to share your thoughts below.
P. S. This post was inspired by a presentation made for a networking event in Brussels “How to Build Your Brand and Network Efficiently” organized by Fearless Female Founders – a ladies-only networking community promoting female empowerment and entrepreneurship.
Most of the insights and lessons learned are inspired by organizing Antwerp-Business-Community monthly networking events in Antwerp focused on knowledge exchange about leadership and business.
If you are based in Belgium and looking for an opportunity to expand your network, both organizations are worth joining.
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