Networking is a challenge. Cultivating and maintaining a network throughout your career can be even more challenging, especially if you’re out of practice.
We reached out to Dr. Crystal Clay, Executive Coach and founder of Olive Branch Consulting, for answers to all our burning questions: What’s the best way to prepare for networking events? Should you bring a colleague? When is it appropriate to follow up? And, most importantly, why bother with all this networking in the first place?
Keep reading to learn more about Dr. Clay’s top tips to help you leverage your strengths and build your own unique networking style.
Why is it important to gather and maintain a network throughout your career, rather than just at the start or during job transitions?
My answer starts with the first word in your question – “Why?” People will do almost anything if they understand why and what are the benefits to them. If the answer to that question is only to gain access to opportunities, then networking at key stages of your career may work for you, but only temporarily. People tend to be quite generous with their time and with sharing their network at the beginning of one’s career, but as time goes on, if the relationship is one-sided, that generosity tends to diminish. Networking is about building connections. You can’t build real connections on an ad-hoc basis. That kind of relationship is short-term and transactional. Networking is like cultivating a garden. You plant the seeds, but then you must water the garden. While you may have to sow a lot of seeds and may not see the fruits of your labor for some time, when you do, it will be worth it. Be patient and invest the time in building relationships. You never know where the connections at the beginning of your career will end up later in their career. One day, you might just get a surprise phone call for your dream job – that’s your harvest!
How would you recommend getting back into the networking game, for those of us who might be a bit rusty?
Start now, start small and start close. Start today and don’t wait until the next event. Networking is ongoing, not at events only. Second, start small by connecting with one contact per week or month and build up confidence. Finally, don’t underestimate the power of those who are close to you. Consider who is already in your inner networking circle i.e. co-workers, family, friends, alumni groups, professional associations, churches, volunteer organizations, teachers, etc. You would be surprised who is already in your network when you pause to take inventory. List all of the categories in your life in which you know people and stop and consider all the people you know within that category. You can also leverage that network for referrals of people in their network who may have the very thing you may be looking for.
What are your top tips to prepare for a networking event?
Begin by reflecting on your mindset toward networking. Successful networking is more than just making contacts and collecting business cards (although you should always bring them). It’s all about building relationships. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Think about your strengths, and how they can help you to build relationships. Then leverage those strengths to build your own unique networking style. Understanding that you have something of value to offer and go to events with that in mind, as well as what resources you need related to your career or vision going forward. Oftentimes, there is only a short window to make an impact, therefore perfect your pitch and make what you do as clear and as easy to understand as possible to capture someone’s interest.
Next, do your homework. Read any available materials on the event. Become familiar with any hot industry topics that may be on the event agenda. If possible, secure an attendee list in advance and identify any persons with whom you may want to connect. Finally, have a realistic expectation of outcomes of the event. You can’t measure success unless you know the objectives.
When attending a networking event, is it better to bring a colleague or go alone?
Avoid the temptation to socialize with colleagues. Bringing along a colleague can serve as a crutch and keep you in your comfort zone. If you choose to bring a colleague along, agree to walk to the event together, but reconnect with them at the end. There are some exceptions, however. They may be coming along to introduce you to their connections or you are introducing them to yours or you may need to take a divide and conquer approach for business reasons. In any case, use the time to build new relationships.
What are a few of your favorite ice breaker questions?
When considering icebreaker questions, keep it in perspective. There is no such thing as the perfect opening comment. People will remember how personable you were and your level of interest more than the exact words you say. One rule of thumb however, is to make a comment or ask an open-ended or positive question simple questions to engage and encourage the person in a dialogue such as:
“Have you been here before?”
“How are you enjoying the…”
“Do you know any of the speakers/panelists?”
“How long have you been in the ….field/business/industry”
“tell me about how you got into this career, or business area?
If networking is a real challenge, you can always ask about the person’s organisaton or their role. Remember, small talk feels fake and superficial conversation can be painful. Try to get to substance.
Which method do you recommend: working the room and meeting as many people as you can or focusing on memorable interactions?
In determining the best methods for networking at an event, I would say “it depends.” The more prescriptive you are in orchestrating plans, the more stressful it can feel. I do however recommend that take the stance of being curious. I heard of a professor who told his students to “stop trying to be interesting, rather, be interested.” The same principle applies to networking. Inquire about what Is important to others. Genuinely connect with people. We have two ears and one mouth. Listen to what they are really telling you about themselves and take the time to get to know them better. This takes time and focus. Maintain stamina, or new energy when moving from one group or person to another.
Let’s say the networking event has ended and I met several people with whom I would like to keep in contact. When and how should I follow-up?
Oftentimes, due to travel and catching up on matters at work, it may take a few days to settle back in. Follow up as soon as possible after the event but at least within the week so that the meeting is still fresh in their minds (and yours). Personalize your note by referring to the event and something related to your conversation. Then stay in touch and show interest by occasionally checking in with them or going for a coffee (if feasible) which helps to establish a relationship.
What is the best way to use social media to maintain a professional network? Are there any social media faux pas to avoid?
LinkedIn is one of the most common professional networks. It’s an excellent resource for connections, updates, articles etc. Familiarize yourself with the various aspects of LinkedIn and make it an active tool them to maintain and grow your network. Strengthen the length of your web on a consistent basis, but not just for numbers sake. Make sure that connections serve a purpose. Try to connect with purposeful groups and engage in conversations, share articles or participate in blogs with those with whom you have a common interest. One faux pas to avoid – using your network list to send forwards or place on an unsolicited weekly emailing list.
Do you have any tips for growing your network or reconnecting with old contacts?
Networking is two-way street. Don’t approach networking with a mind-set of what you can get, instead, focus on what you can give. Givers gain. Be generous with information. Share your contacts. Help people, ask for help and thank those who have helped you. Be a connector. Connect people to each other, connect people to information, or connect them into your interests, projects, etc.
Get out of your comfort zone. Create relationships of all kinds. Get involved in your community or industry or explore areas outside of your norm. Get involved in activities that yield human connection, not necessarily always related to business. Expand your interests. expand your network and introduce people to each other with a view to expand others’ networks.
Any final words of wisdom to help our members become effective lifelong networkers?
You don’t have to be the most extroverted person to be a good networker. You do however, need people skills to build relationships. Networking is all about partnering and looking for mutual benefit. Stay focused on collaboration, being helpful, partnering etc. Remember, givers gain.
Founder of Olive Branch Consulting, Dr. Crystal Clay, is a qualified Executive Coach with over 25 years of experience in talent and development leadership roles. Dr. Clay is passionate about empowering individuals to discover and apply their strengths, realize their goals and achieve success.
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