Member Exchange - Successful Networking
Having spent some time and energy building your personal brand – networking is an excellent opportunity to put it into action. Your reputation will well and truly be on display and yes, you will be assessed by those you meet. You will be doing the same to them. Networking also needs to be part of your career plan. Networking will come more naturally or easier for some than others, but it is important to include it in your career development.
We live in an age of connectedness and being an effective networker assists us in remaining engaged with our peers, industry and to progress in our careers. Mentoring is often viewed as a proactive and positive means of networking. Mentees – you may want to ask your mentor to suggest useful networking events, or even accompany them. Mentors – this can be a great opportunity for you to role-model effective networking strategies, but we would also suggest that you make sure they stand on their own two feet and you take the role of observer to provide them with some constructive feedback.
We are going to be focussing on the “in person” networking. It is helpful to think about how you will maintain your connection with these new contacts online also. There are some useful special interest groups that you might consider using. Once you’ve connected in person, think about sending an online connection request. A word of caution here – be careful who you connect with given that they will also have access to your contacts. Be conscious of your personal band, bearing in mind your connections will reflect your brand also. So make sure you have a good sense of this person before sending that connection request. Simply put – use online networking to support your in person networking.
If networking is effective the benefits to mentee and mentor can be profound. Here are some key strategies to assist you in your networking with a few tips on what to avoid.
Strategy 1: Have a purposeful networking plan
Networking in order to grow your career needs to be purposeful. One of the subtle traps that both mentees and mentors can fall into is thinking that “I’ll be at XYZ event and get a chance to network”, but when they get there they bump into someone they know who they haven’t seen for some time and get chatting and before they know it the opportunity to network outside of their current network has passed. Some simple strategies to avoid missing opportunities are:
- Decide why you are attending this networking function – have a clear expectation of what the benefits are going to be of you giving your time, energy, effort and (potentially) money to attend.
- Specify the number of NEW contacts you wish to make at this event. Be realistic – given the next few strategies you might want to limit it to 3 or 4.
- Understand clearly the purpose of each new contact. It’s easy to meet many new people at an event, but before you arrive, what types of people do you want to be connecting with. It sounds almost self-indulgent, but career/professional networking has agendas. Anyone can collect a whole range of business cards, but who are these people and what benefit will you be to them and them to you. We’ll come back to this point later.
Strategy 2: Be Proactive
It takes effort to be an effective networker. It often takes us out of our comfort zone. We may be concerned about being “rejected” by the person we purposely want to meet and connect with. Being personally in charge of your strategy and decisions is vital to effective networking. Being proactive means you ask for what you want and need.
Being taken out of our comfort zone will require energy and effort. Being proactive can be tiring but the rewards are always there. You may need to be prepared to try on more than one occasion to connect with a certain individual. Being a fringe dweller isn’t a proactive position at a networking event. It may be more comfortable for you but it certainly won’t get you noticed or get you right into a conversation.
We’ve all been told about the challenge of breaking into a closed circle of conversation and this is certainly a challenge at networking events, especially if you don’t know anyone in the circle you want to join. So the top tip for how to appropriately break into a conversation is based on some advice given by a senior diplomat who explained that the most direct way was best. This doesn’t mean pushing in and taking over the conversation – this is never OK. But the direct way is to approach the group by focussing and moving directly to the person who is speaking and gain eye contact with them. They will naturally then include you in the conversation and you will find members of the group shuffle around to fit you in. Then you have the opportunity of contributing as appropriate. The mistake that many of us make is trying to linger along the sidelines where the speaker can see you which results in us being fringe dwellers.
Strategy 3: Focus on the 2-way relationship
We can fall into the trap in our eagerness to make useful connections to focus on the WIIFM mindset. What’s in it for me – this doesn’t focus on relationship, this focusses on personal need and agenda. This isn’t to contradict Strategy 1 – this is to reinforce the need to be purposeful in who we want to meet. In the purposeful plan that we develop, a key element of this plan is to identify what you might have to offer in return. It’s about keeping the balance in the networking situation and the resulting professional relationship.
All too often we just think about our own needs and ignore the fact that the person we’ve connected with has agreed to exchange details and is willing to give of themselves in terms of your career. The giving may be just in having the occasional catch up at other networking events or it may be much more constructive in that your networks see value in being connected to you, respect what you do and are also curious about the professional synergies that may eventuate. So, what are you going to give in return? How are you going to maintain appropriate contact? A simple way of giving back is to be mindful of them and what you know about them. For example, you may have read a journal article that relates to something you were talking about together. Take the initiative to send it through to them acknowledging what had been spoken about and that it may be of interest to them. It doesn’t matter if they’ve already seen it. What matters is that you’ve demonstrated that you want to contribute to them, you were genuinely listening to their input, and that you are mindful of the connection. You may like to invite them to an event you’re attending and take them as your guest.
Mentees, it’s easy to take on the mindset that your mentor doesn’t need anything from you – this is not true. These networking strategies relate to your mentoring relationship also.
Strategy 4: Build Rapport
Your mentoring resource guide refers to the need to build rapport as a foundation to building an effective mentoring relationship. The same can be said of networking connections. It’s too easy to go to an event and be caught in the business card shuffle – where people are handing out cards to all and sundry! This isn’t networking! This is scatter gun marketing, a completely different style and purpose.
If you accept the premise that networking is about creating purposeful professional relationships that are mutually beneficial then it is natural that you will take the time and effort to build rapport. This may not happen at a first meeting. You may, indeed, exchange business cards but the follow up request to catch up for 30 minutes over coffee is where you can build rapport (this meeting also needs to have a purposeful plan). This is why a purposeful plan is important and why you should focus on only a few contacts per event. Effective networking takes time.
Strategy 5: Prioritise
Effective networking takes time, effort and energy. You need to step out of your comfort-zone and get “out there”. You need to be consistently “on” which directly relates to building your personal brand. Making purposeful networking a priority is so important for moving forward in your career. The AIM mentoring program is a great start for this kind of networking. Whether you are a mentee or mentor there will be opportunities to be networking with and through each other. We understand that you are all extremely busy people. Life is full and yet, we do suggest you prioritise the time and energy effective networking takes.
We would encourage you to participate in purposeful networking events, be proactive in how you engage with others and the way you contribute to them. The benefits of making this a priority – putting time, energy and effort into building rapport far outweigh the challenges. This is another way of building your reputation and growing the career you truly want.