4 Steps to Cringe-Free Networking
By Alexandra Levit
Advance your career with a little help from your friends
A popular misconception is that networking is just about getting a job. In reality, it's much more than that. Networking is about establishing relationships that provide you with valuable feedback and allow you to make educated decisions. You do it every day without even realizing it. Let's look at an example. Suppose within days of your move to a new town, your car breaks down. How would you handle this situation? Would you open the yellow pages and take your car to the first mechanic you see or would you ask your colleagues for a recommendation? The second option is an example of networking. Think about why many successful businesses don't need to advertise. They obtain new clients by word of mouth - otherwise known as networking!
The purpose of business networking is to gain information, increase your visibility in your field and establish personal connections that will help you move forward in your career. Even if you're happy with your job, you should always be looking ahead to the next one. How do you use networking as a tool to prepare for your career's future? There are a few steps involved in this process:
Step one: Look for ways to expand your business networks.
Judith Gerberg, Director of Gerberg & Co Career Counseling, recommends looking beyond your company for business contacts so that your networking will have lifelong continuity regardless of the specific jobs you hold. She suggests joining professional organizations that you have a genuine interest in and attending at least one activity a month. At the same time, habitually ask people in your circle if they know anyone who might be a good contact for you. At its core, networking should be fun. If you seek out people who care about the same things you do, you'll enjoy networking and won't view it as a chore.
Step two: Know what you want from a contact and what you can offer her.
Many people dislike networking because they think asking a relative stranger for help is an imposition. As it's human nature to want to help someone, and I think you'll find that most people will be receptive provided you approach them the right way. If you know you're going to be meeting potential contacts, don't just drop a pile of business cards in your briefcase and call it a day. Prepare for networking conversations in advance by considering what you need from the contact. Will a phone conversation do, or would you like to meet your contact for coffee or a meal?
Rachel Solar-Tuttle, Author of Table Talk, says that because networking is collaboration, every time you ask for something or meet with a potential contact you should think about how you can help her in return. Listen to your contacts carefully so that you can glean insights about how you might assist them. Remember that networking is like karma - what goes around comes around.
Step three: Contact the person.
When approaching a potential contact, be friendly, respectful and brief. E-mail usually achieves better results than a phone call, but if you are attending a networking event, an in-person conversation is often the best option of all. No matter how you make contact, always keep in mind that the person is doing you a favor. If he's in the middle of something, don't interrupt, and be conscious of his time commitments. When you sit down with your contact one-on-one, offer to pay any expenses associated with the meeting, and remember to send him a thank you note afterward.
Step four: Follow up with your contact regularly.
After a successful first networking meeting, it's your responsibility to keep the lines of communication open. Did your contact give you any advice or suggest a course of action? If so, touch base every so often to remind her who you are and keep her apprised of your progress. Keep on top of her career moves and make sure she stays informed of yours. Invite her to get together again, and during the holiday season, send her a card with a nice note.
Even the most natural networking interactions can be challenging if you're shy. You might not like asking people for anything, whether it's advice about a field or a piece of gum. I overcome my anxiety by talking to potential contacts about the aspects of my career I feel most strongly about. Should a networking opportunity present itself during an impromptu conversation, I make a conscious effort to be myself and stick to subjects I know well. When making a networking call, I jot down a few notes so that I won't forget what I want to say. I also set aside time in the morning when my energy level is highest and stand up during the call so that my voice comes across professionally. After several years of practice, I'm still nervous talking to people I don't know. However, every time I do it and experience a positive outcome, I gain a little more confidence. I promise that you will too!
Alexandra Levit worked for a Fortune 500 software company and an international public relations firm before starting Inspiration @Work, an independent marketing communications business. She's the author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World (Career Press 2004; http://www.corporateincollege.com). This excerpt was reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from THEY DON'T TEACH CORPORATE IN COLLEGE © 2004 Alexandra Levit. Published by Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ. All rights reserved.