The Point of Networking
Perhaps it’s the cavalier attitude that came with the advent of social media, but a lot of people have lost sight of how to do effective networking. They come to events with a driven purpose, such as finding a job, making a sale, or attracting a client, and they adhere to it so determinedly that any interaction that fails to show immediate promise of yielding the desired result is terminated. As a startup advisor, I’ve watched CEO’s of new companies abruptly end conversations when I don’t seem instantly ready to connect them to customers, funding, or hours of free assistance. As a professor who cares enough to connect good students to the job market, I’m amazed when students outside my courses come up to me at random and ask for my assistance getting a job with hardly a preamble for why I should do so. The list goes on and on.
What people seem to miss is that the foundation of networking is building a network — that is, it’s about relationships. Those who are looking for jobs can go to career fairs and the like, while those looking for funding and such can apply and/or cold call. Networking, however, is about finding people with whom you have enough common ground/cause to develop a professional relationship. Even if that common ground is a win-win type of quid pro quo, there is give and take, sharing, and even enjoyment. When you go to a networking event, you are looking for people that you want to meet and get to know, just as in friendship, with the key difference being that the context for the interactions is professional development instead of personal. Presuming the two of you have enough basis for a business relationship, you will gladly help each other get ahead in whichever ways you can after the relationship is established.
The Dynamics of the Networking Conversation
Regardless of your level, you are almost certainly going to be interacting with people far more senior to you right along with peers and juniors. In any case, your aim is to be sufficiently interesting and memorable as to make an impression. You want people to remember you after the event as someone who can make an effective contribution in unique ways, and take home your business card as a memoir. As such, make sure you have a 5–10 second summary of who you are and what makes you interesting (personally and/or professionally) — all that overview is meant to do is get the other person to start asking questions about you, which in turn allows you to ask questions back.
In the resulting conversation, it’s important to show interest in the other person, learn about him/her, and listen as well as speak. If it’s not a good fit, meaning that you don’t think the person is someone you want to get to know for any reason, you’ll know pretty quickly, and you can shake hands with a “Great! Well, nice meeting you!” and walk away. If it is a good fit, relax and let the conversation take its flow. Exchange some quick stories, gauge each other’s interests, and get a sense of one another’s professional trajectories.
Once the conversation has taken off and you are in a smooth speaking-listening exchange, you want to focus on one key thing: What can I do to help this person? That may seem like the very inverse of why you are networking, but it’s often easier and far less awkward to make an offer to help someone else than to ask someone you’ve just met to help you. A genuine offer and effort in this regard helps you to stand out, and also reflects a collegiality and willingness to be the initiator of the exchange without worrying about what you get back (and if it really worries you that much, trust that generosity that goes around comes around, and you might well be the one making it come around for someone else). No matter how junior you may be, you surely have something to offer to others, such as a connection to someone more senior, a link to a first-rate intern, or the ability to do a quick favor that puts time back on someone’s calendar. Whatever you offer, though, be genuine and sincere — people can smell ulterior motives better than you think.
Best-Case Scenario: Make a Contact
As noted above, the optimal result of the conversation is someone walking away impressed with you, in possession of your contact information, and with full intention of contacting you in the future. That’s all. The person may not be able to do anything for you directly or immediately, but you never know who (s)he knows or where (s)he will go in the future. “People know people know people,” and you never know when your conversation partner will sit down across from someone who can help you or suddenly be in a position to get you what you want. The hope is that, should (s)he be in a position to do for you, (s)he will remember you and want to make the link.
True story: I went to a networking event where a student nearly blew me off because I wasn’t in her field and didn’t directly have connections that could help her, and while she did make some conversation with me and got some pointers, she kept the conversation short and didn’t keep in touch. Not a week later, I was sitting across the lunch table from someone at her dream company who was interested in being in touch with me about future students she could hire as her interns. Had that student taken the time to get to know me, impress me, or at least not be dismissive because I’m not of immediate value, I might very well have put her in touch with my acquaintance. Instead, I gave my lunch neighbor an open invitation with no one specific. You never know who knows whom!
Pro-Tips for Good Networking
Be impressive. An optimum in networking is being impressive while still being modest, and the main trick to this is highlighting your passions and the things you’ve done because of them. Framed this way, your accomplishments are not about your being impressive, but about doing what you like. An added benefit is that your sharing incites people to talk about their passions, which in turn gives both you a good look at each other and starts a basis for building commonalities.
Be professional. For the love of all that is chocolate: dress the part! If you don’t know how formal the event is going to be, stick to professional dress, as you’re always better off being over-dressed (and there’s always the excuse that you came from a meeting/interview/etc.). And, have a good handshake. If someone wanted to grab a limp fish (s)he would have gone to the market. Round out your professionalism with good eye contact (don’t stare, but don’t look around wildly either) and active listening (make sure that some of your responses prove that you’ve heard what your partner said).
Follow up. This is one of the key differences between successful and unsuccessful people. If you were given the chance to stay in touch, do so, and make sure it happens in a timely fashion. Unless you were told when to get in touch, you should send a note within a day or two of the meeting, and certainly not more than one week later. (If you’re having trouble writing a follow up email, see this post.)
Build a relationship. Remember that your goal is to build a relationship for the long-term, one that involves both give and take at a variety of levels, so make sure you are the kind of person that shows gratitude for what you are given and that is generous with sincere and useful offers before being asked. And, remember that sometimes you can’t pay back, but you pay forward into the system from which you drew. When everyone is thinking generously, you have a thriving network.