When I hear the term ‘networking event’, I imagine a room of business card swapping suits and waitstaff carrying trays of canapes. It’s often a waste of time.
It’s hard to recall many (if any) of the people I’ve met at such events having a significant impact on my career. All the really influential people have come from more spontaneous meetings. It’s time to stop going to ‘networking events’ and start networking instead.
So much material exists about how to overcome shyness to network effectively — and whilst being an introvert is still a barrier for many people, I believe many more perfectly confident people struggle to get as much value out of networking as they should because so many events intended for networking are so bad — and they miss out on opportunities to accelerate the development of their private and professional lives.
Instead, we should think of networking as a mindset that we should have all the time.
1. Create opportunities where you can meet people naturally
At so-called ‘networking events’ the purpose is too direct and artificial: there’s no real communication. Better to look for opportunities to naturally connect at a more personal level, leaving business to later.
Sign up to a course, join a sports club, go to local meetups, volunteer at a charity, organise something, find out where the people at the companies you’re interested in hang out after work.
Doing so randomly can be good (you never know when you might stumble upon an opportunity) but you can be strategic: try to find places frequented by the sort of people you’d like to meet.
Take networking online: join conversations on Twitter and LinkedIn, publish a blog, create something.
If you publish a blog post once per month on Twitter and LinkedIn, chances are someone you would be interested in talking to will eventually ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ one of your posts. This can be a very nice, natural excuse to send them a message to thank them and start up a conversation.
2. Be open to new unexpected opportunities
Networking is an opportunity for discovery and learning. Be excited, curious and open minded.
Spend enough time with the people you talk with to really get to know them.
Be open to talk to everyone. You never know which people will end up being most useful for you in the future.
3. Make a good first impression
Think about what your interests and goals are.
Then think about what the interests and goals of the others could be — and where they might align with yours.
If you can, spend time preparing for each meeting, interaction or event before-hand seriously researching into people’s backgrounds and preparing intelligent informed questions.
If you take time to properly identify and research shared interests, you’ll leave a better first impression and have a better chance of creating a more authentic, meaningful long-term relationship.
4. Expand what you have to offer
Find something valuable to offer by thinking beyond the obvious.
People tend to think narrowly about what they can offer. They focus on tangible things such as money, social connections and information, while ignoring the less obvious such as gratitude, recognition and enhanced reputation.
You might also have unique insights or knowledge that could be useful to people you meet. For example, junior people are often better informed than their senior colleagues about trends, new markets and technologies.
When you think more about what you can give to others than what you can get from them, networking will seem less self-promotional and more selfless — and you’ll become someone that people want to talk to.
5. Be led by a higher purpose
People who focus on collective benefits of making connections (“support my firm” or “help my clients”) rather than on personal ones (“support my career”) feel more authentic whilst networking.
Any activity becomes more attractive when it’s linked to a higher motive. For example, if you belong to an underrepresented group, media attention that would result from building a stronger network would not only benefit you individually but help counter biases against the entire group.
So, if you find it hard to motivate yourself to put effort into networking just for the sake of just your career, find a more meaningful, motivating reason to do it, like becoming a role model or addressing an issue you consider important.
6. Nurture the relationship by helping each other
Don’t just exchange pleasantries and LinkedIn profiles. Go deep.
People establish the most collaborative and longest-lasting connections when they work together on tasks that require each other’s contributions.
Spend time really listening to the people you meet. Then when you get home, follow up. Create opportunities to work together. Keep in touch.
- Create opportunities where you can meet people naturally
- Be open to new unexpected opportunities
- Make a good first impression
- Expand what you have to offer
- Find a higher, more meaningful purpose
- Nurture your relationships by working with and helping each other
By doing this all the time, networking will change from being an activity to a mindset, will feel more natural and be more meaningful.
Final thought: I’m absolutely terrible at applying this advice in real-life but I hope that by writing it up publicly that will improve.
Adapted from several classes on Networking taken as part of my IE Executive MBA, notes from the very excellent “Learn to Love Networking” from Harvard Business Review and my own reflections.