Networking is a necessity if you want to build your career or grow your business. Whether you’re an executive, employee or entrepreneur, you are probably aware of the importance of networking – building and maintaining connections that, hopefully, will be beneficial. Most of us, however, view professional networking with distaste; something we must do to get ahead, so just (fake) grin and bear it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to make networking less intimidating, less painful, perhaps even enjoyable, and you don’t even have to be a rip-roaring extrovert to do it well. In a moment, we will discuss some tips and strategies to improve your networking skills. But first, let’s remind ourselves why professional networking is important to our careers and business.
The benefits of networking
Career advancement and job opportunities
Many job openings are not publicly advertised, more so as you get higher up the career ladder. Your networks can give you access to these hidden opportunities and even provide introductions or referrals.
Form alliances or partnerships
Upper executives and business owners can leverage their networks to form strategic alliances and partnerships with other organisations or entrepreneurs. These collaborations can lead to joint ventures, mergers, acquisitions or other business arrangements that can significantly impact a company’s growth. Whether you’re seeking investors for your business or looking for new clients, networking can help you get your foot in the door.
Increase your visibility
When you attend events and grow your connections, there are opportunities to build your personal brand. You put yourself out there as a reliable, knowledgeable or helpful member of your profession or industry. Raising your professional profile means that people will remember your name. Opportunities will come as a natural result.
Your network is a veritable bank of knowledge and information. By connecting with people in your field or related fields, you can stay up to date with industry trends, best practices and emerging technologies. Exchanging information and ideas with others helps you to grow and expand your perspective.
When you encounter challenges, your network can be a good source of answers or solutions. You can bounce ideas off your peers or simply adapt their solutions to your situation. You can tap into their expertise and consider a different approach, especially when there are others who look at the problem from different angles.
Build confidence via networking
One of the less-known benefits of networking is that it builds confidence and self-esteem. The more time you spend meeting new people and striking up conversations, the more your confidence grows. And the more confident you are, the more likely you are to put yourself out there and meet new people. A virtuous cycle, if you will. The enhanced social skills you gain from stepping out of your comfort zone will serve you well in your career and personal relationships.
Strategies to network effectively
At this point, you would realise that networking is not about handing out your business cards and shaking hands with everyone in the room. It’s also not enough to do it once in a long while. You will reap the benefits of networking when it is done strategically, meaningfully and regularly. Like most good things in life, it takes patience, persistence and some effort. Here are some tips to help you get started or augment your networking skills.
Pick suitable opportunities
We can’t be everywhere all at once, so pick occasions that will be relevant to your objectives. The obvious events will be industry conferences or round-tables, business associations or chambers of commerce gatherings, and professional or executive social events. To broaden your circle, you can look at alumni networks, speaking engagements, corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and workshops or retreats. You may even want to consider hosting your own event, the benefit of which is that you can craft a guest list to your liking.
Plan ahead before networking
Find out who will be at the event; make a list of the people you would like to meet according to your networking goals. For example, are you looking for new clients, career opportunities, industry peers, or mentorship? Do some research on the topics of discussion. Make sure your business cards are ready and you have a system for remembering names. Find out what the dress code is.
Craft your elevator pitch
To make a strong first impression, you can try crafting a concise and engaging introduction that highlights your expertise and what you can offer. This helps you build your personal brand and value proposition. Of course, you don’t have to regurgitate your pitch word for word every time you meet someone new. Just have the points at your fingertips so that you can bring them up at the opportune moment.
Prepare questions to kickstart conversations
Ask open-ended questions that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” response. Remember to include non-business-related questions in your list. You can use the “FORM” method suggested by author and communicator Bob Burg in his book Endless Referrals. “FORM” stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation, and Message. Everyone will have something to say in at least one of these areas.
Here are 10 questions you can use to initiate conversations. With practice, you can steer the “warm-up” conversations into meaningful discussions that will be memorable and enlightening.
- How did you get started in this business?
- What projects are you currently working on?
- What’s the unique value proposition of your product/service/company?
- How do you define success?
- Have you come across any interesting trends or developments in the industry lately?
- What are your favourite books or podcasts?
- Is it possible to achieve a work-life balance?
- How has AI and digital disruption changed your business or industry? How do you deal with it?
- Is there a specific goal or outcome you hope to achieve at this event?
- What do you do to unwind?
Make social media networking work for you
Social media platforms are a boon for introverts and the reticent. Digital communication cannot replace face-to-face interactions, but is a very useful complement. For some, these tools can make networking easier to swallow. Moreover, social media allows you to connect with people from all over the world and build a strong online presence. LinkedIn is particularly useful for building professional networks, sharing your career achievements, and connecting job seekers with employers and recruiters. Instagram is handy for those in the creative fields to connect, as it is a platform to share photos and visual posts. Something to consider: you might wish to create another account to keep your professional and personal updates separate.
Follow up and follow through
If you had said you would share resources, connect people or make an appointment for coffee, make sure you follow through. Make phone calls and return emails and texts promptly. Just like a meeting or interview, send an email within 24 or 48 hours to remind your new connections of who you are, summarise the discussion and suggest the next steps. Uphold your integrity by keeping your promises.
Perform regular networking maintenance
Have a system that keeps you on schedule to maintain and touch base with your connections both old and new. You have to tend to your network regularly. Avoid the mistake of getting in touch only when you need something. You don’t have to meet up in person to stay in touch; you can send a birthday greeting, or email relevant articles or industry updates. Relationships are not built overnight, so invest some time to nurture these connections.
Perhaps most importantly, be genuine. Think about what you can give, and what you can offer others. Studies have found that when people believe they have more to offer others, networking feels less selfish and self-promotional, and therefore becomes easier. Make time to really listen to people, and find out what motivates them, and what they value. Figure out how you can help them. Successful networkers continually put the needs of others ahead of their own.
Get out there and start networking
Networking is not just a beneficial activity; it is often a critical component of professional success. It can help you stay at the forefront of your industry, keep you at top-of-mind and create opportunities for yourself and your organisation. Using these ideas we’ve provided, start building and maintaining authentic, mutually beneficial relationships. If you need help, reach out to us.
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