Networking is a vital but sometimes overwhelming requirement of pretty much everyone who wants to move forward in their career. Even if you’re not actively looking for a new job, networking can help for those moments when you are ready to move on — or when unexpected HR decisions force your hand.
Too often, the dreaded word evokes images of meaningless handshakes, pointless small talk, and weird friend-of-a-friend connections online. Often, those very images are the downfall of networking and won’t lead to any meaningful connections that can help you later on. But networking can have its benefits, even if they just serve to make you work a little harder. “Surround yourself with smarter people,” Francisco Cruz told one Forbes author. Cruz has helped grow the Startup Grind community into a city startup networking company. “I feel like I will never be as awesome or as smart as those near me. And with that constantly hovering around your head it makes you strive to become better.”
If you have been relying solely on websites to do the hard work for you, you’re not alone. “Executives have better [online] tools to network with. But their quality of networking is probably worse than ten years ago,” Jane Howze, a managing director of executive recruiters Alexander Group, told The Wall Street Journal. “They look at it as a commodity rather than as an individual dialogue.”
Howze is the target of many failed networking attempts, many of which make her further lament the state of networking. Many of them are networking requests in letters from people she’s never met. (Cold contacts have always been rough, and they still are.) Name dropping, especially when Howze doesn’t know who that person is, can be especially detrimental.
The silver lining is that many people are guilty of using cheap tricks or easy routes for networking at some point or another. This means that redemption is an option, and you can make yourself stand out by using a variety of pro tips. Take a look at these five from proven networkers so you can start to see your network grow — both on and offline.
1. If “networking” means logging in to LinkedIn, you’re doing it wrong
Social media has its place in the networking world (we’ll get to that in a minute). But if that’s your first tactic for establishing connections — or even your second or third — you’re not going to be as effective as possible. That’s according to Mark Thierer, chairman and CEO of Catamaran, a pharmacy-benefit manager. “Old-fashioned relationship building has been superseded by social media,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “People do business with people they like. It’s hard to like somebody online.”
That may sound curmudgeonly and kind of like Clint Eastwood telling you to get off his lawn, but Thierer’s been perfecting his networking techniques for decades in the field, and that effort is likely one of the reasons he’s served as a corporate officer or president at several health care companies in the United States. No one can completely know a person online, no matter what Match.com tells you. You’re not looking for a soulmate in this case, but you’re going to build trust much faster with colleagues and potential industry mentors if you take the time to meet in person. It shows more of an effort than clicking a “connect” button, and you’re more likely to represent yourself accurately, anyway.
2. Find ways to stay connected
Thierer sends out about 3,350 holiday cards every year. On at least 500 of them, he signs his name and writes a personalized message, which often contains a reference to something the two have done together in the past. (Signing 500 cards means Thierer begins that process in the spring before December, not a week before.)
Licking envelopes might not be your thing. But keeping up with your network is important. Former Baxter International CEO, Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr. consistently carries a list of 20 people he wants to catch up with. Kraemer calls those contacts while he’s traveling alone in the car, and started the practice 35 years ago. By making a constant habit out of it, Kraemer estimates he’s able to have a personal phone call with about half of his 6,000 contacts each year. What’s more, he keeps notes on the calls so that he can remember details about people’s lives and what they’ve talked about.
3. Networking events shouldn’t be your only (or last) connection
You wouldn’t expect that person who caught your eye at a party last weekend to make all the moves. You also wouldn’t expect to know everything you need to know about that person from one interaction in a noisy, crowded room. In the same way, take the initiative to follow up after parties or networking events with interesting people who could help grow your circle of contacts.
“Whether it’s a fundraiser or industry event, it can get a bit overwhelming when making the rounds and introducing yourself to professionals you’ve never met before,” writes Forbes contributor Drew Hendricks. “And, even if there was a great first introduction, it’s difficult to gauge if that contact is worth continuing a relationship because time is probably limited.” Hendricks suggests following up to grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat over lunch. That way, you’ll be able to write something a little more specific in an email than,” Remember me? That person who stood in the corner of the room with you and talked for about five minutes?”
Hendricks also warns that these casual follow-ups are good for most people, but you should limit your strategic contacts to a handful. Good networking takes time, and if you’re looking for an industry mentor or people who will build into your professional life, you won’t have enough hours in a day to keep up with everyone equally. Choose wisely. “When constructing these relationships you want to make sure that you keep in touch on a regular basis and that the interaction was worth their time – sharing a relevant article or a career update would be examples of quality interactions.”
4. To give is better than to receive
Unless you’re one of those people who truly relish the idea of picking out the perfect birthday gift for your sister or you’re an altruist at heart, this one won’t come naturally. But in order to network effectively, you have to be willing to give, even if you’re not necessarily guaranteed a return in that moment. Otherwise, you become like that friend that shows up when they need $20, but is nowhere to be found when you’re moving and need help packing boxes.
“The most pervasive, destructive misconception about networking is that it’s all about getting things: favors, resources, leads, sales, and so on,” writes Maya Townsend, networking expert and co-editor of The Handbook for Strategic HR. “People who work under that assumption soon get a reputation as takers.” Sometimes, Townsend writes, the giving can take the form of a thoughtful email that follows up on an interest or hobby that person has. Perhaps it does mean helping a coworker move apartments, or cubicles. Most times it probably won’t take a lot of effort, but these sorts of interactions help to create other ways to stay connected, so you’re not searching for things to mention in those holiday cards you’re sending out this year.
5. Use social media in the right ways
LinkedIn won’t solve your networking problems, but using social media as an asset can be advantageous — especially as the world is becoming more mobile. View social media not as a means, but as an advantage. Hendricks, in the Forbes column, suggests using LinkedIn or another social site to look up information about people attending an industry conference. That way, you’ll recognize people and be familiar with their work ahead of time. Joining constructive conversations and creating dialogue about relevant news can also establish you as an authority figure within your field.
It’s well-known that networking can often lead to job placements, and younger audiences using mobile tools are finding success using social media. Job seekers who use social media in their search are often younger (25% of people ages 30-39 used social media tools), according to a job search survey conducted by recruiting platform Jobvite. Of those people who defined themselves as social job seekers, 76% found their current job through Facebook. But there is a growth potential on LinkedIn, as 94% of recruiters use that site as their first attempts to attract new talent.
It’s clear that social media has its place in the job search, even if it’s just for background research or making connections with long-lost classmates who now could help you land a new job. Just remember that it’s not the only way to network, and sometimes it’s not even the best way. The trick is to know your audience. Everyone will appreciate a handwritten note or quick call to catch up. But those who are also using social media as frequently as you are might find a quick Facebook message just as thoughtful. Try a variety of methods, and stick with the ones that work best for you.
More from Personal Finance Cheat Sheet:
- 5 Job Interview Questions That People Don’t Want to Answer
- 5 Career Mistakes You Can Recover From
- 9 New Facts on How Teens Use the Top Social Networks
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