Jared Quade, Doran Leadership Partners. December 2020
A big chunk of any job search, whether you’re fresh out of college or you have 20 years of corporate leadership experience, is networking.
Okay, let me get this out of the way up front: For most of my professional career, I interpreted the concept of “networking” as a chore. Something I had to do in order to get what I need. Don’t get me wrong – I had some successes with it (more on this later). But I mostly struggled. I was apologetic and shy, pulling away into my introvert turtle shell. There were a few key things about networking that I wasn’t doing correctly or simply misunderstood.
I’m still not the model of “the perfect way to network.” I’m still finding myself feeling apologetic and shy sometimes. Much of what follows is common sense, but so often we veer off the path when met with a roadblock, an objection or a distraction. That’s why having some reminders can be helpful, much like approach lighting on a runway helps airplanes land safely every time.
What is networking? And why?
Let’s break it down first. Literally, networking (according to the Oxford Dictionary) is “interacting with others to develop professional or social contacts.” The reasons one would want to network are to churn up new business opportunities and career prospects. It can weave a web of support for when you’re in an unexpected pinch. Your network can keep you informed about trends and can also construct the pulpit from which you can become the informer, the trusted expert. It can develop social confidence, and it just plain old feels good to reach out and help people sometimes.
Start close, branch out
These relationships—these people—are what matters. But who are the “right” people? Start small. Friends, current and former colleagues. Work outward from there to your circles of neighborhood acquaintances, your volunteer efforts, fellow alumni, places of worship and/or the other families to whom you are connected through your kids’ school and extracurricular activities. Then look to the next tier: similar professionals, industry associations, online communities and other organizations. Keep branching out, looking for those connections that fill the spaces in between. Have you found someone on LinkedIn with whom you would like to connect? Feel free to ask a shared contact for introductions. Intentionally make efforts to network with different backgrounds, cultures, genders and generations. And each of these resources should have methods of communication in place to stay engaged in spite of our current work-from-home world.
Keep a copy of your story in your back pocket
Just as important as the “who” is the “why.” You want a clear idea of what you want to accomplish by networking. Think about what your value proposition is going to be. Look for the common denominator that your goals share. What’s your elevator pitch? Your personal “brand,” your functional story or key competitive position?
Before a scheduled meeting with a contact of influence, my colleague here at Doran Leadership Partners, Heidi Westlind, recommends that one create a short summary of what to expect from the meeting, which can be sent via email ahead of time. Although this one-pager can list a handful of things depending on your goals for that meeting, it would typically include:
- The reason why you want to meet
- An easy-to-read capsule summary of what your short-term and long-term goals might be
- Employment history and educational background…the things on your resume that you ideally would want to see float up to the top
- Work style or personality type data, if you have that and want to share
- Your professional branding
- A plan for how follow-up to the meeting will look like
- And your contact info!
Carry your passions and hobbies everywhere with you. Combining a networking opportunity with things that you love generates a genuine energy. That energy will naturally pull others in. It turns the idea of “always be networking” into something that is seamlessly integrated into your lifestyle.
From personal experience, I have categorized this as my best “in.” Once it has been unearthed that someone I just met is really into rock music, basketball or tabletop gaming, it’s really easy for my excitement to boil over into an invitation to talk more. There are also the instances in which I have been lucky enough to work for a company I genuinely loved working for. In those cases, it’s fun to engage people about my work, so it’s easy.
The secret sauce: A two-way street
The most critical part of your networking strategy, however, is the “secret sauce” to success: identify and build a mutually beneficial connection.
This is where I got it all wrong all those years. I would approach things in a transactional manner. I had a very short term, one-way view thinking, “If this person can’t help me now, I’m moving on.” Serving only myself in this way limited the range of my network to coworkers and current clients. I don’t even think you could call that a network. It’s more like a bubble. If I was looking for direction, advise, new business, a new job or an opportunity to showcase my expertise, I would panic and scramble at the eleventh hour because the limited reach of my network had been exhausted.
Which brings us to what I see as the most important concepts to remember about networking: Be generous, grateful, honest and transparent. Be yourself. Listen first, help next, then sell. Our friend Anne Sample at Navigate Forward says in this helpful Wall Street Journal article, “You will remain in that person’s mind as somebody they want to help and somebody they want to connect to other people.” Being interested in others makes YOU interesting.
Beyond the coffee shop and into Conference Room A
With no thanks to 2020, meeting in person became a rarity and other meeting channels have necessarily emerged. In the meantime, we have all the technology we need to stay in contact, introduce ourselves to new people, work on our networking strategy and goals, reach out with generosity and join conversations about the topics we love to talk about. That being said, even when things go back to normal, “normal” will have shifted a bit…meaning it’s crucial that we are all comfortable and stay up to date with the new tech. Like it or not, videoconferencing isn’t going away.
The essential business tool LinkedIn will also be of growing importance as we move forward. Being visible and cultivating a thoughtful and professional presence on LinkedIn not only prompts you to interact with others, but also offers reminders to your network to engage with you. The other large social networks to consider for professional purposes are Facebook and Twitter, and Nextdoor is a good hyperlocal option to connect with those in your immediate area.
Here’s a couple of articles that I found that offer some timely tips for networking during the pandemic:
Whether you’re in front of your computer screen or at an event, it’s quality over quantity. You have found someone to connect with and a reason to connect with them. You approached with generosity, you provided your connection value, and they agreed to meet with you.
You’ve successfully “networked.” Send a recap and a “thanks.” Follow through with any promised phone calls or introductions. Continue to engage your new connection going forward…don’t just reach out when you need them. Give their business a spotlight out of the blue. Congratulate them on an achievement. Introduce them to someone else you know.
Our founder, Libby Doran, recently reminded me: “Every time you enter a networking conversation, you have something to offer. You just might not know what that is yet.” Intention to develop solid foundations for your relationships and reaching out with selflessness and gratitude are the best ways attract people to your professional goals, and eventually cultivate a network of champions and evangelists for your business, career and personal life.