Just mention networking and most people let out a frustrated sigh as images of working the room and carelessly passing off people deemed to be of little interest in the career scaling stakes spring to mind. Most of us have been on the receiving end of bad networking and often the idea of putting others in the same uncomfortable situation serves as an excuse for us to avoid making the effort to meet new people.
We don’t need more excuses, but we do need to know where to start. So before even getting into the how’s of networking (which I will look at in another post), lets look at its backbone: the very basics of what you have to do to be a successful, purposeful networker.
1) Know where you are going
Generally you wouldn’t leave the house without having a pretty clear idea of where you are going, yet many people are happy to aimlessly meander through their careers and networking events.
On occasions (like when you’ve just moved to a new city or country) you might just be out to meet some new people and have a bit of fun and that’s a good a motive as any. Nevertheless, the more common situation is that you are out meeting people in order to promote your business or your career, so your ultimate aim is to get a job or a client. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this clear to all you meet.
Let’s say you want to get a new job. In a world where HR departments have their inboxes full of applications for every post, getting to know people, who know people who can either help you to get your application read, or help you get recognized as an expert an a specific field is important. In fact, in many cases, really focusing on what you want to achieve and meeting the right people to help you get there can mean you get an interview before the job is even advertised.
The only way to do this is by being very clear about what type of opportunity you would like. What role? What sector? What company? And so on. The days of graduating and then drifting from job to job in the hope of defining a career are gone, although that doesn’t mean you can’t reposition your career or become a “serial master”.
Be clear with yourself on what you want to do, it will help you when you later try to explain this to others. This step is vital and you’re going to have to think long and hard about it (but don’t let it stop you moving on to the next steps).
2) Think who can help you
So you know what companies you are interested in, you know the role you would like, but who can help you get there? You might think, oooh someone in HR or the president of the company… right, they probably can, but they are probably also swamped by people trying to meet with them and so will be less open to your advances. While it’s useful to have an idea of exactly who (including names if possible) can help you the fact is that almost anyone in a company or sector can help you to understand more about it and therefore focus your brand and your development towards their needs, so don’t discount people before you start.
Think about who you actually know that might be able to point you in the right direction. Remember at this stage you are not selling or asking for a job but getting to know more about your goals. You are the centre of your network, it’s time to think about what contacts you already have that can lead you to where you want to get to.
3) Understand what you offer
Once you start networking, you might just meet nice people who eventually become friends, but you also need to be prepared to meet people who are actually interested in your professional profile and bother to find out more about you. For this you need to have worked on your personal brand. At very least you need to have an excellent LinkedIn profile (see my pervious post on this).
You should also think beforehand about what you really have to offer professionally and what evidence there is so far that you have been able to deliver this. You might want to distil this into a short answer, introduction or elevator speech. Although how effective this is will depend a great deal on the culture you’re a dealing with: where it will be expected in the US, in Europe are Latin America you will need to be more subtle about your aims. But no matter what, you need to be clear about what you add. How you make the other person’s life easier.
4) Imagine where you might meet them
You can’t just roll up to the office of where the target person works, hanging out at the door to find out where they take their after work drinks is also gaining you stalker status rather then most-desirable-would-be-employee status. So think about where you might be able to meet them in a safe professional context. Be aware of sector-focused conferences in your city. I live in Barcelona, home to the Mobile World Congress. For anyone based in southern Europe, focused on telecoms or tech, this is a conference not to be missed, despite the price tag and the fact that you are unlikely to end up sharing canapés with Mark Zuckerburg (even when he attends). Equally, you might like to think about where you might meet online. LinkedIn groups can be invaluable for this.
If you are set on meeting a specific person (maybe they have an amazing blog, have written life-changing books or you’re just their biggest fan) you might also like to try writing a personal connection request via LinkedIn or e-mail. A friend of mine told me over dinner how he’d done just this, having seen that the company he was interested in had just appointed a new Managing Director in the newspaper, he sent a carefully drafted message explaining why he was interested in working for the company and what he could deliver. It took him a while to build enough trust and respect to get his dream job, but he started it by professionally reaching out, making it clear what he could offer.
Write a list of five events throughout the next year you can realistically attend that are likely to put you in contact with people who may be able to help you achieve your goals.
5) Take part in these events
Now you’ve identified the events that you should attend as an expert in your desired field, it may sound basic, but you have to go and do it. And we’re not just talking about buying the ticket or signing up, then skulking in the sidelines, we’re talking actually taking part. You need to do this as much as your degree of expertise will let you. If you are a leader in your field or have worked on a niche area of research you might be able to be a speaker. Write to the organisers and make a proposal.
If you can be a speaker this, your networking will suddenly become much easier because people will want to talk to you rather than just the other way around. If you are in that middle ground where you’re not well known, but know your stuff, you might try for a moderator position and at very least take an active role in any workshop discussions. If you are just starting out, it’s going to be tougher; you are actually going to genuinely have to get to know some people, and let them know what you have to offer. And you absolutely can’t hang around with the people you know, never bothering to get to know anyone new. I’ve seen this hundreds of times and it will do more damage to your image than speaking to someone boring or getting blown off as a work-the-room-style networker understands (perhaps falsely) that you are not the key to them realizing their dreams.
Luckily if you are a bit proactive you will also find yourself naturally in many networking situations that are not just facing a room of unknown people at the ubiquitous work-related conference, but more making genuine connections with real people. Even in these, you’ll be a step ahead it you’ve thought of these 5 points, just being able to explain where you want to get to can be impressive in itself.