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I never cease to be amazed at how nervous some clients get when I broach the idea of networking. The topic seems to bring up all sorts of anxieties. ‘I don’t have the charisma for it.’ ‘I hate being forward with people.’ ‘I’m an introvert.’ Very often, there lurks a terror of awkwardness and rejection behind these fears.
There are a lot of misconceptions around what networking is—and what it’s for.
So what is networking? Put simply, it’s the making or nurturing or reactivating of connections.
And what is it for? Well, put very simply: it’s for increasing the chances of good new opportunities opening up for you on the career front. (That it can also sometimes lead to real friendships is a delightful bonus, but not the core function.)
Networking, whether at organised events or on a quiet one-to-one, is not the career equivalent of dating! Nor is it quite the same thing as socialising within your friend group (though it can of course include that). It’s just a way of being connected and tapping into the power of high-quality conversations.
Here are some tips to guide you on your way into the world of networking. They apply generally, but with absolute bells on for anyone experiencing redundancy right now or simply looking to boost their job search.
1. Use LinkedIn.
No explanation needed, right? LinkedIn is the go-to place for connecting with people in a career context. There is no excuse in this day and age for not building and maintaining a profile--and making the very most of the platform.
2. Be information-oriented.
The more people you know in the professional space, the more information you have at your disposal. Only a small fraction of career-relevant critical information is to be found in the public sphere or on social media. Nothing beats one-on-one connections with persons working in the field. They will know things—and people—that could prove game-changing for you. (And no, I am not talking cronyism here, just the kind of IRL on-the-ground observations that can make all the difference.) I cannot tell you the number of people I know whose lives have been changed by a chance remark dropped by someone who is where the action is. Making yourself connected to a greater number of people dramatically increases your chances of being lucky. It therefore also makes sense to ask whoever you are talking to if they know of anyone else who would be worth talking to.
3. Don’t be shy about telling people what you want.
Avoid beating around the bush. Just be honest. If you want to grab a coffee with someone because you need to get their take on something, then just be upfront with them about this. And there is nothing wrong whatsoever about straight out asking someone for help. Many people are actually chuffed and complimented to be asked. And in the case of those that are not generous when it comes to sharing or helping, you may as well find this out about them sooner rather than later. So avoid the syndrome of talking around what’s really on your mind. Most people find this kind of indirect solicitation irritating—and irritatingly transparent. Don’t drop hints: get to the point.
4. Be a good connection yourself.
Take a leap, and assume that the law of karma holds true. So for heaven’s sake be decent to people. Help wherever you can. Be generous with your time and advice. Plug into the whole ethos of give-and-take that lies at the authentic heart of the networking idea. You’re not the only person who has struggles. Be empathetic, and be available to people. Be there for others, just as you would like others to be there for you.
5. Don’t go all ‘alpha’ if it’s just not you. Just be yourself.
Some people make the mistake of (figuratively speaking) putting on their Super-Networking Hat when meeting people or going to events. They become self-conscious. They try too hard. They over-talk. They power-dress in a way that just isn’t them. They can even behave pushily, as though they’re cosplaying some character in Succession. They think they have to impress, impress, impress. Better far to just be authentic. It will help you relax into good conversations. It will also make you a better listener—which in turn will make you get more out of conversations and render you a more empathetic interlocutor. Don’t treat every networking encounter like a job interview. You are not on trial! If curiosity (informational and personal) rather than self-consciousness is your dominant mood, then you’ve got this right.
6. Don’t underestimate the power of the connections you already have.
Draw a network map and you will see that you are not starting from zero at all. Many of the connections already available to you will be, so to speak, latent. An old college friend you haven’t seen in a while. A friend of a friend you got chatting to the summer before last. A cousin you catch up with every Christmas if you’re lucky. Sometimes these latent connections can be extremely powerful. And there is a reason for this: you are each a known and trusted quantity. You and the other person have a backstory, a history, a prior context. This will give depth to any conversation you might have when you reach out to them. So—reach out to them!
7. Be on the lookout for collaborative synergies.
This is especially useful advice for entrepreneurs, but its application is by no means restricted to the entrepreneurial world. Few things are more wonderful than the unexpected ‘click’ that can happen when talented people make a connection. The paradigm shifts from ‘Can this person help me?’ to ‘Hey, maybe we can help each other here…’ Most powerful of all is when two (or more) people realise that together they can become something much bigger than the sum of their parts. As one client said to me after one such encounter, ‘I went in with a dream idea, and came out with a much bigger dream idea—and a kindred spirit to help me realise it.’ When you meet a person like this, go with the flow. Don’t allow your preset Plan A place a veto on a new, richer Plan B.