Six Rules of Professional Networking
Mention networking to most people and you’ll be met with reactions that range from an audible groan and an eyeroll to a blank stare. But landing a new job today is tough, and relationships matter. After all, that’s precisely why sites like LinkedIn and their ilk exist.
In a completely-unscientific survey of people I know, four out of six got their current job through a personal referral. The referrals were not necessarily from a “friend,” but from a contact, people they met at a conference, a professional organization, and even a former employer. The other two were contacted by corporate recruiters who had viewed their resumes on a service like Monster or Indeed.
When you’ve been in the military, you have not only the network of people with whom you served, but connections through your spouse, your family, and the instant recognition that comes from having the US Armed Forces on your resume. But that doesn’t mean you won’t need to continue developing and expanding your network once you’ve left the service.
Most people don’t get excited by the prospect of networking. But if you can think of it less in terms of “do they have a job opening for me” and more along the lines of “how can I help someone,” you can find it becomes a satisfying part of your professional life.
There are tons of resources out there offering networking tips and relationship-building guidance. At the risk of bogging readers down with loads of advice, here are six simple rules of professional networking that can help you get off to a great start (or pick up where you may have left off).
Rule #1: Be a giver, not a taker.
People can spot a taker right away. He or she is a familiar face at group gatherings, with a fist full of business cards and a permanently plastered over-wide smile. This person collects (and drops) names like others might collect baseball cards: they’re neat to look at, but he only spends time on them when he want something out of them.
When you’re building a network, you are really building a group of people you trust – and who trust you. You want to be someone your group can rely on to listen and deliver results. Focus your effort not on trying to sell yourself, but on getting to know what other people seek. When you listen, follow up and add value to their goals, they will remember and respond in kind. You have to cultivate trust – that’s not something you gain with a “what’s in it for me” attitude.
Rule #2: Be thoughtful.
Shakespeare said, “There are no small parts, only small players” about the theater, but the same can be said about building your professional relationships. No one is irrelevant, except for those who would treat people poorly. Be deliberate and thoughtful about the associations you join and events you attend. Consider people you already know as well as people you’d like to know. Both are important. You might think twice before dismissing a small group of local business owners – it’s the quality of people in your group that matters, not quantity. It’s better to have 5 people you know well and who are willing to help each other than to have 305 contacts who don’t know much about each other or you. First think about what your contacts need and how you might be able to help them achieve their goals. Then think about your own plans.
Rule #3: Use your ears more than your mouth. But use them both wisely.
We’ve all been trapped at parties with someone who insists on telling you their life story, interrupts anything you have to say with a “one-up,” and offers unsolicited advice on problems you didn’t know you had. Don’t be that person. And if you encounter them, don’t put up with them too long, either.
Before you go anywhere there might be an opportunity to network, prepare two or three questions as conversation starters, and prepare graceful exit lines for those situations where it’s clear the other person is a “taker” (see Rule #1).
There’s a reason villains always monologue. Heroes are too busy helping other people to talk. If your conversation partner seems like more of a Joker than a Batman, make a graceful exit. Networking is about building a mutually-beneficial, trusting relationship. You have to demonstrate you’re there for the good of others as well as yourself.
Rule #4: Keep it professional.
It’s true that networking can happen on the sidelines of your child’s soccer game as easily as it can happen at a professional meeting. But if you’re reaching out to people with the sole purpose of giving or getting professional advice or advancement, keep to a professional setting. Don’t hound contacts on the playground or grocery store. Some day a friendship could develop, sure, but until everyone involved is comfortable with that, keep professional boundaries at all times.
Professional boundaries include taking steps to prevent unnecessary gossip and inappropriate assumptions on other peoples’ part. Don’t meet outside the office with people of the opposite gender. It might seem old fashioned and a bit absurd, but people tend toward speculation and gossip, and your professional reputation is too important to risk. Lunch with the boss or co-worker in a well-lit, busy restaurant could be acceptable, but no dinner/drinks/dessert in any quiet, dark place that might suggest you’re trying to hide something.
Having said that: If someone’s behavior makes you uncomfortable – if they’re calling or emailing too much, perhaps acting like they’re a bit too familiar with you, set them straight clearly but gently. And let a friend or family member know what’s going on so they can help if needed.
Rule #5: Spread wealth and expect nothing.
Just because you’ve had a great conversation with someone doesn’t mean they are obligated to do anything for you. In fact, now that you’ve had a great conversation, the ball is in your court to follow up – not theirs. Once you’ve made a connection, it’s time to start learning more about them. Your new contacts’ interests, challenges, and needs all offer you an opportunity to demonstrate your value. Follow up with a brief, specific email or phone call that shares something worthwhile and shows sincere interest. Here’s some ideas for following up after a connection at an association function:
Email: John, I enjoyed our conversation Thursday about your widget project. The attached article on widgets 3.0 caught my attention and I thought I’d share. Would like to hear your thoughts on it when you have a chance. Best regards, Jamie
Phone call: Hi John, this is Jamie – we met at Thursday’s AWA meeting and talked about your widget project. I’d love to send you a copy of an article I just read on widgets 3.0 – would that be okay?
Delivery: Pick up a copy of the publication or copy the relevant article and either drop it off personally or send it in the mail to your new contact with an attached note similar to email above.
The very best thing you can do to grow your network is share information. Whether it’s something you’ve read, a tool you’ve acquired, or music you’ve heard, share something with your connections that’s relevant and useful to them. Your contact may or may not respond to your attempts. They may even say “no, thanks” when you offer something. Don’t take it personally. Simply chalk it up as a learning experience and move on. Either way, you gain information and practice. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Rule #6: Networking is a lot like brushing your teeth: You must do it daily for best results.
Networking is a habit. When you do it a little bit each day, it doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming and the results consistently pile up. Make no mistake, though: Networking is often disguised as work. Volunteer opportunities, group projects, committee activities – all are great opportunities to meet some fascinating people and learn about them. You can also make a habit of introducing two people with the same backgrounds, interests, or goals. What happens next is up to them, but do this a few times and you become the go-to resource for people in your network who seek to meet new talent.
Getting started is a lot simpler than you might think. Consider who your network is and think about who you want it to include. Pick up the phone, use email, or go to an event or activity. Be sincere. Listen. Be useful. That’s pretty much it, and it’s not so scary when you think about it that way.
Do you have any networking strategies or stories to share? We’d love to hear them. Dish them out in the comments below.