Ask successful people for career advice, and they’ll mention networking, for good reason. It works. That doesn’t stop people from hating the idea, though. One recent study on networking found words used to describe the process included "fake," "deceitful," and "disingenuous." With such a negative connotation, no wonder it’s easy to underinvest in building a network.
But master connectors know that it’s possible to avoid this trap. They figure out ways of getting to know people that feel more giving than fake, and then they develop habits that keep them connecting, even if it would be easier not to.
Some disciplined networkers build daily habits. Michael Simmons, cofounder of Empact, a company that helps entrepreneurs share their insights through articles and events, sets a goal to make one introduction per day. It’s not about forcing it; "I let it emerge naturally based on who I'm talking with during the day, the emails I receive, and people who come to mind," he says. "I like understanding what people need when I talk with them, and then I spend time thinking of people." Over two years of his doing daily double opt-in introductions (both people agree to it ahead of time), people he’s introduced have become investors in each others’ businesses, and six figure clients for each other.
For two years, Max Leibman, now an imaging supervisor in Kansas City, set a goal of writing roughly 5-6 handwritten thank you notes per week. The habit started as a way to express gratitude, but "I eventually realized that it was a nice networking boost for myself." He’s an introvert, and his prior sales role and volunteer work all required dealing with lots of people, "so I didn't have a lot of social energy left for further networking activity, but in the quiet of the early morning or downtime at work, I could write a couple of notes and solidify a relationship." Also, it didn’t take much time. He timed it, and retrieving a card and envelope, writing a note, looking up the address, writing the address, and stamping the envelope took four minutes and 55 seconds.
Handwritten notes are a great way to connect in general. Selena Kyle, a lawyer for a nonprofit public health and environmental group, writes a personal note every afternoon when she needs a break. Many go to friends, family, and coworkers for birthdays and work milestones, "but making a near-daily habit of this means I also have plenty of chances to write to people I went to law school or college with and am no longer in close touch with, or former coworkers or people who are part of my broader professional community, following up on something I read about them in an alumni magazine or local newspaper or just saying I've been missing them and wondering what they're up to." Almost everyone emails back to fill her in on their lives.
Even if you’re not into handwritten notes, disciplined networkers aim to take a few extra seconds to personalize things. For instance, plenty of people send LinkedIn invitations, but "over 95% of the people who use this approach fail to write a personal note to ask if they could become part of your network, or even to remind you of who they are," says Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management at Babson College and coauthor of The Coaching Manager. Writing a personal note takes a little time—but getting in the habit of pausing to do so before hitting "send" builds a much stronger network.
Seeing people in person is a great way to cement connections. Some disciplined networkers get in the habit of scheduling at least one breakfast or lunch meeting per week. Randi Zinn, founder of Beyond Mom, an organization that hosts networking and lifestyle events, aims to regularly combine workouts with people she wants to get to know. "A lot can be accomplished in approximately 90 minutes," she says. Setting up meetings is fairly easy in the age of automatic calendar tools. Meghan Jennings, a coach, uses Calendly to send invites to people for an appointment type she calls "coffee chat." People can pick whatever time works for them and where to meet, which eliminates about half a dozen back and forth emails. "It makes me much more likely to reach out to people because it’s so simple and easy, plus it isn’t time-sensitive: if they aren’t available until next month, they can still use that link when they’re ready," she says. She can send lots of these invitations at the same time, which "has made it much easier for me to improve my habits around staying in touch."
Some people make a habit of going for big but less frequent in-person events. Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out, and the ebook, Stand Out Networking, organizes monthly dinners of interesting people. When someone emails to ask if she’d like to meet for coffee, "If the person is someone I'd genuinely like to meet, I mention the dinners to them, and ask if they'd be interested in joining the next one. If so, I move their email to a ‘dinners’ folder, and when I schedule the next month's gathering, I know exactly who to invite."
Many people include deepening relationships with existing connections as part of networking, and you can make a habit out of this too. Alison West says she doesn’t like big crowds, but she has a few specific people she wants to stay in close touch with. So she uses Trello (a project management tool) and creates a board with the months as task lists. "At the beginning of the year, I put everyone's name in January. I then have a checklist attached to each person's name. The checklist includes: a helpful tip, thank you, lunch, person to connect. As the month progresses, I try to do one thing a week—either thank them for being in my life or for helping me in some way, sending off a helpful tip, etc. Only when I've completed the above checklist, do I move the person to the next month." This process, which is almost like a game, "helps me stay connected to those I care about."