People usually fall into one of three categories when it comes to networking: born naturals, those that don’t really think about doing it, and those that dread it. You learn all about the human anatomy, balance sheets, income statements, micro and macroeconomics in college. But, how often do you hear about a class on professional networking? It’s not taught in school at all really, yet once you’ve graduated you are expected to start doing it immediately.
Many will tell you they don’t do it because they hate schmoozing. That’s what I used to think too.
Early in my career, my employer at the time sent me to a conference out of town and I was expected to get to know as many people as possible within the company I worked for and the industry. My boss made this expectation clear to me and then proceeded to watch me for the next two hours to make sure I did. I could feel his eyes follow me around the room, and every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of his disappointed face. I’d walk up to someone to start a conversation, but then chicken out and back away. I’d join in on conversations at inappropriate times. I’d ask superficial questions that clearly were not genuine. I’d wait politely next to a group of people hoping to be invited into the discussion. Sometimes it happened, but usually it was just painful, awkward, and embarrassing.
I just didn’t enjoy schmoozing. I wasn’t exactly the outgoing, gregarious, talkative person that could converse with total strangers and have it be natural. All my relationships were deep, meaningful, and rare. I was a classic introvert. When I did get the courage to connect with people, I’d be left mentally drained.
How was I ever going to get the hang of this networking thing when I hated talking to people?
Fast forward 15 years. I network at least twice a week. I learned ways to do it so that it is natural, sincere, and actually enjoyable. Through these connections I have gotten jobs, learned about myself and others, and they’ve kept me engaged and motivated professionally. It has gone from being a source of stress to being a hugely enjoyable and productive activity with just a few changes in my outlook on the whole process.
1. Connect with people on LinkedIn
I message at least one person every other week. These are usually people that I’ve worked with, gone to school with, or just find interesting because of their line of work, their experience and knowledge base, the articles they post, or the projects they’re working on. There is so much I learn from connecting with people even briefly. And it is 100% genuine because I enjoy it. I look forward to hearing from old colleagues on where their careers have taken them or the new ventures they’re starting, old classmates on their professional and personal journeys, the new companies they’ve started, the new ideas they’re thinking of, and even the struggles they’ve faced.
I accept new connections from strangers…if it makes sense for me personally to do so. Do they work for a company I am interested in learning about or even working for one day? Is their current or past job something I’d like to do? Is it a student or a recent grad in my field that I could potentially help? Do I think I could learn something from them? If they don’t meet one of these criteria I simply don’t add them. I am looking for quality contacts, not quantity.
I read, like, and comment on people’s posts. The articles that people post can tell you a lot about what is most important to them, potentially something they’re facing professionally at the moment and you get to increase your knowledge!
I post articles that I think others will find useful and are of interest to me. I recently wrote one myself on personal productivity, which had close to a 1000 hits and not only did the requests to connect increase significantly in the following weeks, but I enjoyed reading the comments, dialogue, and interaction from people on the topic.
These contacts are completely within my control. I get to write, edit and word things exactly how I decide under no time constraints or social pressures. This is a great way to learn the art of striking up conversations which later can be used in face to face situations.
2. Join a professional organization
Look into what professional organizations exist for your field and join at least one. They will usually have a member directory accessible to all current members. Use it! Sometimes they will even tell you the member’s work and education history and you may even be able to do a search by city
If you come across someone’s experience that was of particular interest to you, contact them! Send them a quick email telling them why you are interested in making a connection. If you are feeling particularly bold, ask them to meet with you so you can learn more about what they do and get their advice. It is also flattering to people to be asked for their advice, their expertise, and their opinion. Remember this – People love talking about themselves
Volunteer to help at a professional event. This is a great way to meet people without the pressure since you will be focused on helping others.
3. Send thank you cards
If you do get the opportunity to meet with someone for an informational interview, always send them a hand written card to thank them afterwards, within 1 day. Make it short and simple. Do NOT ask for anything (especially a job) at that time.
4. Adopt a new mindset
“I used to walk into a room looking for people to like me. Now I walk into a room looking for people I like.” Now I’m in control of the conversation and where it goes simply by this minor change in outlook. It’s helped ease the pressure and feeling that networking is about getting someone to like me. Instead, it’s about me letting people know what I can do and finding out the same about them. It’s an exchange of useful information, not a high school popularity contest.
5. Create a catalogue of contacts
If you collect business cards, put them into a binder and note when and where you met each person.
If you prefer storing them electronically, keep an e-log or spreadsheet noting when and where you met, and 1 thing to remember them by (maybe they attended the same college or lived in the same town as you once). I suggest this especially for recent grads that are newer to networking as it makes it easier to keep track of contacts.
6. During face to face interactions
Ask open ended questions such as, “What do you find most enjoyable about working at xyz?”, “What did you find most useful about this conference?”, or “What do you believe are the biggest challenges today for healthcare providers?”
Lastly, remember that networking is a skill that must be practiced. Even introverts can do it well. It doesn’t always have to be in person or be so formal. You just have to start somewhere, start building your network one person at a time, continue keeping in touch with those people through ways that are comfortable for you, and then try to expand those ways at your own pace. Be creative and have fun!
Your Call to Action: Try at least one new networking technique this week. Let us know how it worked out for you!
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All the best,