Networking 101


This is a guest post by Steven Marks.  He is the Comunications Director at Executive Coaching Connections.


Networking has been known to strike fear in the hearts of professionals everywhere. But - why should it?  The ability to interact and connect with others in your industry (or desired industry) can often make the difference between merely being noticed and fostering mutually beneficial professional relationships.  And usually, other participants are just as nervous as you are!  

 

Networking 101Image courtesy of sheelamohan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The beauty of effective networking is that you never know who you'll meet and how their insights or connections might affect you.  This is equally poignant whether you're looking to interact within your industry or outside (in a job search, for example).  In a recent Business Week article, INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra points out that, "[those who are most successful are] the people who are curious and open to reaching out to others. That gives them glimpses of other possibilities."  

So, how does one get started?  Keep reading for some important tips on how to make networking more effective.


There is More than One Way to Network


Large group or trade/industry events are often seen as the most traditional type of networking.  These can sometimes be the most intimidating and smack of a middle-school dance if you're a little uncomfortable with approaching strangers in a professional setting.  Don't worry though - the potential benefits far outweigh the risks!  The larger events allow you to interact with so many different professionals the odds of making a meaningful connection are greatly increased.  

One-to-one networking is arguably the most powerful type.  Like personal relationships, one-to-one networking is most effective when two or more professionals have a relationship based on mutual trust.  The occasion to meet usually has a pre-determined context (a business need or job opportunity), and the outcome may or may not be implied.  

Social networking (online) is the newest type of networking has been getting much press lately. While it shouldn't be seen as a replacement for in-person networking, social networks (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) can still play in important role in establishing your personal brand and notoriety within your industry.  A few things to consider:

  • You've heard it before: keep a "clean" image of yourself in your online profiles.  Because the usual "give and take" of conversation isn't in place, everything you post online is under greater scrutiny. Make sure you consider the impression you make in connection with your name.
  • Social networks are a great way to get in the conversation!  Comment on blog posts or tweets by those you'd like to interact.  Ask questions, and make sure you can link back to your profile if you have one.
  • If you have a blog or Twitter, link back to those you'd like to interact with, and then let them know.  They'll appreciate the exposure, and your efforts may start up a conversation offline.
  • A major strength of online networking is being able to see who your connections are connected to.  Interested in meeting someone your contact knows?  Don't be afraid to ask for an introduction!  Make sure you're clear about your reason for the request, and then start thinking about how you can repay the favor to your connection for making the introduction.

 


Networking Tip!

Intimidated by the huge room of strangers?  Start slow: pick just one person to say hello to.  Once you conquer that first introduction, target another.  Asking open-ended questions is a great way to get the ball rolling.  After a few chats, you'll begin to feel the momentum take over!




Being a Good Networker

Cassandra Mitchell, an executive coach and principal of Executive Coaching Connections, LLC, a Chicago-area organization development firm says, "When we do Networking Assessments for clients, I like to stress the fact that networking is most successful when participants are proactive.  Think about it: you have a responsibility to be a partner in a professional relationship.  Those relationships can pay large dividends if you truly invest in them.  You have to do it because you care."  

We have goals in our personal lives that our friends and family are aware.  Why not establish the same rapport with colleagues?  That way, your connections know what you need, and are more likely to help you.

Not sure where to start building those relationships?  Executive Coaching Connections, LLC recommends using a Network Assessment Worksheet to see who's who in your network. Once you can visualize your network, finding that next great introduction is as simple as asking.


Professional and Engaged Presence


Once you've targeted a networking opportunity, it's important to concentrate on how you present yourself.  Its no secret that your first impression is often the most important, and it lays the foundation for your "personal brand."

Mitchell says, "When talking about professional presence, there are often some common misperceptions. First is the notion that ‘My position or title creates my image - I am what I do.'  The other one can be ‘Because I'm at this event, people know me and what I'm all about.' These viewpoints can tend to insulate people from each other as they rely on an assumption." Here are some tips for coming across in an engaging way:

  • Be present, be yourself, and participate.  Staying towards the side of the room or only talking to your friends negates your chance to make that next great professional connection.  Go out there and show everyone about "brand you."
  • Pay attention to body language.  If you avoid eye contact, or appear "closed to contact" with crossed arms and legs, you're showing you don't want to talk.
  • Short self-introduction.  Your quick "elevator pitch" (or introduction) is the key to starting off the discussion.  Many choose a "teaser" approach by mentioning the outcome of their work, rather than the title, designed to elicit a question. (Example: "I routinely increase the margins of my client organizations."  Desired response: "Sounds great - what do you do?")  
  • Ask questions, but don't go overboard.  You want to come across as genuinely interested, but not interrogative.
  • Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.  This is seen as the "golden rule" of networking.  After all, what's the point of meeting new contacts if you don't stay in contact?  Send a follow-up email 1-2 days after your initial contact, briefly recounting what you enjoyed about your interaction.  Sending an article related to your conversation can also be a nice touch.  Remember: stay brief but warm - building relationships takes time.



Whom to Target


Sometimes you may walk into a networking situation with an open mind and a willingness to see who you'll meet.  While this attitude is certainly admirable (and some might say brave), sometimes it makes sense to actively pursue speaking with an industry leader or particularly insightful personality.

If networking within your immediate professional circle, it's a great idea to talk to your boss' boss.  Often people take this person for granted or feel they are too far up the chain of command.  However, making a positive impression just one level above your boss' can help out your career prospects where you currently work.

When networking at events outside your immediate circle, try to review the event materials to see who will be in attendance.  Is there going to be a particular speaker who could lend insight into a question of yours?  Does someone from an organization you admire plan on attending as well? Make a point of approaching if it seems appropriate.  Keep it friendly and light, and don't ask for large professional courtesies right away (example: jobs, co-credit, client introductions, etc.) - remember, you're just getting to know this person.  If the discussion goes well, you might want to ask for a business card to keep in touch.  

At the end of the day, you want to give yourself the chance to shine - join a professional organization that will have people aligned with your expertise, or one outside of your professional circle that you feel you can bring new insight to.

 

Question:  What is your networking strategy?

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