Learning how to network effectively is one of the most powerful tools an individual can use to advance their personal and professional life.
This skill can help you land your dream job, score a promotion, and become close with the leaders in your industry.
We spoke to networking guru Dr. Ivan Misner, Founder and Chairman of Business Network International, and Matthew Rothenberg, Editor-in-Chief of career content at TheLadders, about the secrets to networking effectively.
What does the best strategy for networking boil down to? Building real relationships, actively maintaining them, and giving as much as you take.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just those details…
Why is networking important?
It’s simple: knowing the right people can get you places that you might not reach otherwise.Of all the areas where networking can help you, the most important are probably getting new business, finding a job, and having relationships with key people who can help you out in ways you can’t predict yet.
Networking opens up new opportunities for you, TheLadders.com’s Rothenberg says. Particularly in the case of job-hunting especially in this extremely competitive market, networking can be the difference between scoring a job and not.
Ultimately, it’s all about the relationships: the ones you can build through networking are invaluable. As Misner puts it, “when times are tough, a client will leave you, but a friend won’t.”
How to get started: practice, practice, practice
If you’ve never done it before, networking can be an intimidating endeavor.According to Rothenberg, the only way to become an expert networker is to “practice practice practice. The more you do it, the better you get.”
To get started, Business Network International’s Misner suggests first sitting down with a guidebook (we list several good ones at the end of this feature) and learning the basics.
You should also participate in a networking group; Misner breaks them down into 4 types:
- Casual contact networks (networking events or industry mixers)
- Knowledge networks (professional associations)
- Strong contact networks (groups that meet frequently specifically to build professional relationships, like those run by BNI)
- Online networks (professional social media services, such as LinkedIn)
If possible, you should be active in one of each.
1. Be visible
You won’t be able to network if you’re not visible. If people don’t know who you are, you can’t start building those important relationships.Many small business owners are so focused on the day-to-day of their business that they forget about actively networking, Misner comments.
“Be visible. Networking is a contact sport! You have to get out and connect with people,” he says.
2. Build solid relationships
“Trust is key to networking,” says Misner.You have to cultivate real, deep relationships with your contacts before you can ask them for a favor or expect them to send you business.
“It takes time for people to have confidence in you and have a relationship with you — you have to invest in them,” he continues.
One of Misner’s favorite acronyms is “VCP,” which stands for:
Visibility: “They know who you are and what you do.”
Credibility: “They know who you are and what you do, and they know that you’re good at it.
Profitability: “They trust you enough that they’re willing to do business with you.”
How do you develop these networking relationships? You approach your professional contacts as you would any other relationship, Misner says. “You have to sit down and learn about the individual.”
Try connecting with them on a level other than business — people bond over overlapping areas of interest, no matter what they are.
When you start to care about one another, you’ve developed a solid professional contact.
Having a diverse network is just as important as having a large network.If you only know people who are like you — i.e. in your industry or social group — “your network becomes insular,” says Misner.
But when your network is diverse, you’re more likely to know “connectors,” or those who can put you in touch with people you never would have met otherwise. And those people will be able to help you in different, better ways.
In an interview with Inc. magazine, networking guru Keith Ferrazzi says, “Every free moment is a chance to E-mail or call someone.” According to the profile, “He makes hundreds of phone calls a day….He sends E-mail constantly. He remembers birthdays and makes a special point of reaching people when they have one.”Your network will be useless if you don’t maintain it — that means constantly reaching out.
For beginners, Misner suggests making a game plan with a “scorecard” of networking points. Whenever you actively make an effort to reach out to a contact, you get a point.
Sending a thank-you note, making a phone call, arranging a meeting, sending an article of interest to someone, displaying someone else’s goods in your store, putting someone else’s link up on your Facebook… all of these count as networking, and you should be doing these as often as you can.
“Count those touchpoints! How many times are you reaching out?” Misner asks. “With the technology we have today, there is no excuse not to stay in touch.”
5.Give back as much as you can
Giving is a crucial element of networking that people often forget.According to the Inc. profile of Ferrazzi, “Successful networking is never about simply getting what you want. It’s about getting what you want and making sure that people who are important to you get what they want, too.”
Rothenberg recognizes that “it’s easy to drop off when you’re not actively in need of something.” But you need to remember that networking is a perpetual give-and-take.
He continues, “You want to be the one people go to when they need something. That means suggesting somebody else for a job when you can, putting them in touch with an acquaintance they should know… You have to give, give, give.”
Reaching out to a well-developed contact should come naturally
Building your network is just one part of networking; what happens when you need a favor?Reaching out to a contact is often the aspect of networking that makes people most uncomfortable. But the exchange shouldn’t be awkward.
If you’ve developed the relationship well, that favor will come naturally.
Rothenberg suggests asking what they need first, or doing a favor for them unprompted, before you ask for one.
Also, he advises that “people hate to say ‘no.’ If you put them in a position where they can say ‘yes,’ they’ll be happy to do so.” This could mean that, instead of asking straight out for a job, you see if they’d be willing to write you a recommendation — a much more likely request.
Most importantly, before reaching out to someone, Misner warns that you should always determine where you are in the relationship. “It would not be a good idea to e-mail your entire network [asking for a favor] — that’s called ‘spamming.'” You have to behave appropriately and smartly depending on how close you are.
What if there’s someone you don’t know, but want to know? Rothenberg suggests that you “find that mutual connection. Even if it’s a weak tie with someone, it works.”
Or attend industry events, and don’t feel bad about positioning yourself to meet that person you want to know.
And always remind yourself that you’re focusing on building a relationship, not trying to get something out of them.
If you lose touch, don’t hesitate to rekindle the relationship
If you’ve lost touch with a contact that you’re wishing you could get in touch with now, you’re not out of luck.While you should never just call them out of the blue and ask for a favor — “that would be very detrimental, in most cases!” Misner warns — you shouldn’t feel awkward about getting in touch.
“Send an email, or call them, and say you want to rekindle the relationship,” says Misner.
The overall best way to handle it? Don’t lose touch in the first place. Always be working at maintaining your network!
What if you’re shy?
The thought of networking is most intimidating for people who are shy. Try to remember that you’re really building relationships, not trying to get something out of someone.Rothenberg suggests planning three interesting talking points to bring with you to a conversation with a contact. Make them things that you’ll be excited to talk about and you know will interest them, too.
And, of course, practice will make you more comfortable, as well. “Make networking a natural part of your daily life,” he adds.
Misner’s cardinal rule of networking: “Never, ever ask for anything from someone you’ve just met, who you don’t have any relationship with.””Networking goes bad when a complete stranger says ‘let’s do business together, hook me up, etc…. That’s not networking, that’s direct selling.”
Above all, Misner repeats that networking isn’t about passing out your business cards or asking people you don’t know well for favors. “‘Coin-operated networking’ is bad for business. It doesn’t work in the long-run.”
The key to successful networking is to remember that you’re working on building real, deep relationships with your professional contacts.Your network won’t do you any good if it’s full of lots of people who you don’t know very well; cultivating both the depth and width of your network is extremely important.
“Networking is more about farming than it is about hunting,” says Misner. “It’s not just about who you know — it’s about how well you know them.”