I know now that a strong professional network is pretty much mandatory for career growth. But once upon a time, I didn’t have the same sense of pre-professionalism as many of my peers, let alone the network. As a first-generation college undergrad, my parents–Chilean immigrants who worked in the service industry their whole lives–didn’t push me toward a professional path. They never insisted I major in something “practical” or pursue internships that would lead to a financially stable job. They supported me as I explored my intellectual passions, traveled, learned about other cultures, and got to know myself.
I feel fortunate to have had that freedom. But by the time senior year arrived and graduation loomed near, I realized I was behind in the job-search process. The tech and startup opportunities I had become passionate about felt inaccessible. I needed a network.
The problem was that socially, I had always felt more comfortable in one-on-one settings. The idea of approaching a room full of strangers seemed too calculated and inauthentic. I had to retrain myself to stop thinking about networking as an aggressive, transactional process and instead approach it with curiosity and an open mind.
A few alumni events (and an evening sneaking into a gala on a dare) later, I was a convert. It turned out approaching strangers professionally, as opposed to socially, actually felt more authentic, because I could be transparent about my intentions. I met a lot of really fascinating people, some of whom were even able to help me with my job search. “Networking” no longer felt like a dirty word. It was actually kind of fun.
Of course, meeting interesting people was just the first step. Over time, I’ve worked to build long-term professional relationships with people I respect and admire. Precisely because I don’t come from a professional background and family, these relationships have been crucial to my advancement. They have become my references, connectors, advisers, and champions. If you weren’t born into a well-connected network, the best thing you can do is create one for yourself. Here are five tips for going about it.
1. Seek Out Common Ground
As I’ve gotten more comfortable with real small talk while networking, I’ve developed go-to questions that help me uncover rich common ground. Try these or your own questions out to see which work best for you:
- What do you do outside of work?
- Why do you do what you do? How did you end up there?
- Did you always know this is something you wanted to do?
- What are you hoping to accomplish next?
- What have you read or watched recently that really left an impact on you?
2. Be Ruthless In Gathering Contact Information
This one’s pretty simple. You’ll never get a chance to develop a professional relationship with someone if you don’t get their name, email address, or some way to keep in touch. Don’t be shy, overly polite, or unimposing. When I sense the conversation is coming to an end, I often pull out my phone, open my LinkedIn app, and ask the person I’m talking with to share his or her name so we can connect right away.
3. Be Flexible
Building a professional relationship means nurturing it with different touchpoints over time. At first, that might mean sending a quick thank-you note. But soon, you’ll want to have more meaningful conversations. Depending on the person’s schedule, industry, and seniority, any number of ways to connect might be most appropriate. Offer them as many options as possible–do they prefer to chat by email, text, phone, or in person?–and be ready to be accommodating. I try to keep it broad with my ask: “Would you be open to connecting further over coffee or a phone chat in the coming weeks?”
4. Do Your Research Every Time
When you do get that phone call or coffee meeting scheduled, do your homework and see what the person with whom you’re connecting has been up to. Do they (or their company) come up in any recent Google News searches? Do they have any new activity listed on their LinkedIn page? Have they written a recent blog post on Medium or shared their thoughts on Twitter? It’s your job to know. You won’t necessarily need to bring up every finding, but you should use them to craft thoughtful questions and to have context when navigating the conversation.
5. Express Your Appreciation Generously And Specifically
If and when the relationship turns into a great referral, connection, resource recommendation, or simply solid career advice, remember to be thankful. Write or speak genuinely, and cite specifics. What was the most memorable insight from your conversation? Why do you appreciate this person’s perspective? What can you offer in return? People at every stage of their lives and careers will find it rewarding to know how their advice helped you.