While managing a project at work recently, I hit a wall and realized I needed some outside feedback. I sent a few emails to people I know for their input and, as usual, got terrific insights on how to move forward.
Though this might not seem significant, I was leveraging the power of my network.
We commonly do this in all kinds of ways: by asking for advice and feedback, through opportunity exploration and sharing, by venting and planning, and through reflecting and growing. My usual means of networking is through community building.
But say the word “networking” and people’s eyes gloss over or they begin explaining why networking is slimy and insincere.
When you probe a little deeper, though, you realize that a few assumptions and mistakes are making people’s attempts to build and nurture their network more challenging and frustrating than they need to be. Here are a few mistakes I often encounter:
Raise your hand if this is how you feel about networking:
“Gosh, I hate networking events! I end up standing by the wine and cheese table and just pigging out.”
My hand is in the air right now, which is why I’ve stopped going to networking events. Instead, I’ve started focusing on the opportunities that allow me to shine: one-on-ones, workshops and conferences, and small gatherings.
Of course, a big part of growing and connecting is putting yourself in new situations and stretching your comfort zone. But the backbone of your networking strategy should be things that take the following into consideration:
When I started this job, I pitched a project that, while within my realm of expertise, was still a stretch. So I needed to learn from folks smarter than I was. Then began a six-month process of informational interviews with people I still keep in touch with. What do you want to learn? Why? Where can you acquire this knowledge or insights? From whom?
One of the reasons I don’t like networking events is because they tend to lack focus, and I struggle with small talk. Some folks, like my dear boyfriend, walk into a room and make friends. I don’t get it, but I don’t force it, and neither should you. What kind of settings make it easier for you to come alive? Where do you feel like you can share and listen best?
Networking can be expensive! Drinks and registration fees add up, as do the hours you might spend commuting, mingling, etc. Take stock of your budget in terms of time and money. What can you realistically do?
You handed out your business card to a bunch of folks. You sent an email to a contact on LinkedIn. You followed someone on Twitter. Good to go, right? Not quite.
Networking is relationship building and this takes time. So plan to keep in touch and help others by doing the following:
Someone shared an awesome article that made you think differently about your work? Thank them. Someone congratulated you on a project? Thank them. Someone gave you advice many moons ago and you’re just now putting it into practice? Thank them. Thank people who help you or inspire you. Generosity is key to building relationships that last, so get in the habit of showing appreciation.
Gifts are small gestures that demonstrate you were thinking about the person and want to help solve a problem they mentioned they might be having. It doesn’t have to be a monetary gift but can include anything from a job opportunity, a helpful article, to an event they might like.
This is one the most powerful ways to grow and strengthen your network while helping others. Help people connect. After getting permission from people, connect them via email with a note mentioning why you think they should get to know each other. Also consider hosting small get-togethers; a few years ago I hosted a dinner at a BBQ joint with a few people I knew and wanted to know each other. Nothing fancy, nothing formal, but a great way to reconnect with old friends and build stronger relationships.
It’s hard to set a reminder for what feels like something that should be organic. But aside from the fact that we’re all busy, because much of strengthening a relationship is small gestures, there’s no urgency, making you more likely to not to do anything at all. So set a reminder to reconnect with one person each week.
If you’re looking for opportunities or for advice, it’s easy to feel as if you don’t have much to offer. But when you think this way, you’ll likely come off as desperate when meeting people. In addition to building a habit of gratitude, also think about talents and interests you can share with others.
Ownership of a project–one that you create and manage from start to finish—is a great way to build confidence and uncover interests and skills you never thought you had. It also gives you something to talk about when you meet people.
What are you reading about or thinking about lately? Why? What hobbies are you exploring? I’ve been surprised at how quickly my conversations with people move from a focus on work to a focus on interests and passions. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised: We’re all dynamic, multifaceted people with dreams and desires that go far beyond our jobs. Let’s tap into this more often.
What are you good at? What do people come to you for that makes you proud? Again, we all have something to give.
Most people think about networking when they need something: a job, a piece of advice, or some insight. And there is nothing inherently wrong with this (as long as you also keep in mind the importance of giving more than you receive). But even when we need something, we tend to be too vague, making it difficult for people to actually help us.
Let’s take the classic example of needing a job. Far too many people say, “I’m just looking for a job, know anything available?” I can’t really do anything with that and it puts me in the awkward position of feeling like an interrogator: What kind of job? Why that job? Why do you think I can help you? How can I help you?
The more specific you are, the easier it is for people you’re reaching out to to offer you their support.
A significant barrier to networking is also the belief that everything should be organic. This makes sense in situations where your network consists of people who are physically close to you like people in school or at work. But as you grow and change, your network will need to grow and change, and this can only happen if you are deliberate.
Heading to a conference? See who else will be there, schedule a time and place to meet, and think a bit about what you’d love to talk about. Love informational interviews? How often will you do them so you continue to make meaningful connections and grow in your career? What your networking looks like depends on your commitments, but it’s key to be deliberate about trying.
Networking doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might appear—but before you jump in, spend some time reflecting on who you are, what you can give, and what you need.