Networking is one of the most important professional skills you can develop. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘exchanging information, contacts and experience for professional or social purposes’. It’s about building two-way, mutually beneficial relationships—one person at a time. Aim to build long term relationships rather than just focusing on networking as a means to get your next job. Networking is much more than a technique to find out about potential job opportunities. In fact, people who build strong internal networks within their organisation are often better positioned to:
• work collaboratively
• be aware of opportunities for career advancement
• be in touch with the right people to get ‘things done’.
Try and build networks outside your organisation too. Research has found that people with good external (and internal) networks are better able to survive business closures and redundancy.
Networking is sometimes about enlisting other people to help in your job search through building relationships, asking for advice and sharing information. Networks can include family, friends, or people you meet through study, employment, sport, clubs or other activities – in fact, anyone you meet and spend time talking to. In this instance, they need some understanding of you, your strengths, your career interests and the sort of jobs you might be interested in.
Here’s something for fun, about how not to network.
Think ahead about networking
Preparation is the key. Take some time to reflect before you head out to an event or start an online networking strategy. What are you looking for? Introductions? A mentor? Information about job opportunities? An opportunity to interview someone so you can find out more about a particular career?
Think in advance about what others might want to know and the type of questions they might ask. Consider beforehand what information and impression you want to convey and practice your responses to possible questions out loud, in private. How will you introduce yourself to others? (There’s more about this in Why you must have an elevator pitch.]
Get comfortable networking at professional events
This can take a bit of practice. When you’re attending an event, an easy starting point is to find someone you know, join them and the group of people they are talking to and listen to the conversation. Hopefully an opportunity will arise for you to contribute, or your contact will include you in the conversation by introducing you.
If you don’t know anyone at an event, consider approaching someone else who’s on their own. Be friendly, extend your hand and make use of your elevator pitch. Once introductions have been made, try and get the conversation moving in a positive way. You might for example ask the other person about their job and how long they’ve been in the industry. Listen carefully and pick up clues on topics of mutual interest. The best questions are open-ended (they can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’) and often start with words such as ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’. That said, avoid asking questions and introducing topics that might raise negative feelings or come across as intrusive.
Sometimes conversations at networking events can reach a point where they are difficult to maintain or people need to move on. Show respect for others and leave a good impression with some forethought about possible ‘exit strategies’ as simply walking away from a group conversation can appear rude. You also don’t want to just leave someone standing alone if it’s just the two of you who have been chatting. Can you come up with a couple of exit phrases to use if needed?
‘I’m sure you want to meet other people, so I’ll let you go. Would you like one of my business cards?’
‘It’s been great speaking with you. Do you have a business card? Thanks, I’ll send you a copy of my proposal tomorrow.’
‘It’s been great meeting you. I promised I’d circulate the room so do you want to come over and I’ll introduce you to… ?’
Another strategy is to introduce your new contact to another person before saying a brief goodbye and politely leaving the group.
Here’s a clip about how to network at a careers expo.
The importance of follow up
What’s the point going to a networking event if you don’t follow up with the people you meet there? Send an email after the event thanking them for your conversation. You might also send through any documents or links to a website you discussed, or if it is appropriate, you could send through a copy of your resume. As many people now have LinkedIn accounts, you could send a request to connect on LinkedIn with a brief reminder about how you met and what you talked about.
• Always be polite and friendly.
• Be proactive and approach employers.
• Have an opening line.
• Speak clearly.
• Leave conversations with good manners and grace.
• Always behave professionally.