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Be The Kind Of Person People Will Want In Their Network
Networking is the art of fostering mutually beneficial relationships with peers who share your interests and/or professional background. It’s an essential skill to cultivate: networking can connect you with mentors, future employers, and colleagues who can help you find opportunities to further your career.
“Networking is a lot like nutrition and fitness,” wrote Herminia Ibarra, professor of Organizational Behavior at the London Business School. “We know what to do, the hard part is making it a top priority.”
It isn’t unusual to hear people express frustration about having to network. A lot of times it’s because there are people who go to networking events who ruin it for everyone else: insincere, narcissistic glad-handers who are more than happy to take opportunities but stingy with returning that generosity to their peers, the kind of people who are there to self-promote but will never uplift anyone else in their network. Just meeting one of those “here’s my card” people at a networking event can be enough to sour you from the experience.
Don’t be discouraged! Networking can be fun, intentional, and beneficial to anyone who makes a sincere effort to get involved. Follow these five tips to make yourself a valued member of your network.
Do Your Legwork Before You Walk In
Whether you’re attending an online event or networking in person, you’ll want to do your due diligence before attending. “Networking has to be added to your calendar and schedule,” said Rio Salado College Counselor Autumn Cardenez. “It takes planning, research, and effort to utilize all networking resources to your advantage.” Research the event, find out more about the individuals/organization putting it on, and get a sense of the tone of the event (is it a casual meet-up? A dressed-to-impress professional meeting? A pitch night or a happy hour mingle?).
“Reach out to co-workers, family, friends, educators, and social media websites like LinkedIn and Twitter,” Cardenez suggested. “Other networking opportunities include blogs, online seminars, and forums.”
Another way to set yourself up for networking success is to align yourself with events that best reflect your interests. “Select events that are best suited to your goals and your style,” said Gina Pinch, Rio Salado College's Faculty Chair of Business, Management, and Public Administration. “You are more likely to get connected and remain connected to a group you enjoy.”
If there are specific people you want to connect with, do research about them so you can walk in with an icebreaker. Just don’t go overboard with the research: you want people to walk away flattered that you’ve looked up their work, not worried that you ran a background check on them.
Practice Active Listening
Nobody likes the person who waits for people to stop talking so THEY can talk. Be an active listener at networking events. Be present and in the moment, maintain a comfortable level of eye contact, and stay off any mobile devices unless you’re taking notes or sharing information with someone. Be sincere as a listener; people can tell you when you’re just nodding along.
“One way to stay active in the conversation is to ask questions,” Pinch said. “This helps you gain a better understanding of the topic being shared and shows you are engaged in the conversation.”
Not only will being a good listener endear you to people—it will also help you stay in touch with your network. Remembering the details people share about their work and life and calling back to them in future conversations shows that you actually paid attention.
Speaking of remembering details: it never hurts to take a moment when you’re by yourself to jot some quick notes about conversations you had with contacts. Writing these details down can improve your memory retention and will give you something to refer back to when you touch base in the future.
Always Be Ready To Pitch
One of the most important skills to cultivate for networking is being able to concisely and clearly articulate who you are and what you can do. What essential skills do you want prospective employers to know about? What kind of work do you want to do? What is a project you’re proud of? Use this to develop an elevator pitch—1-3 sentences that are easy to follow, engaging, and convey. Practicing your pitch is important because you want it to sound conversational and natural—this prep work will keep you from sounding canned or rote.
One other thing to keep in mind: always take your audience into consideration. A great online pitch might sound too unprofessional in person, and you don’t want to give a peer on your level the kind of hard sell pitch you might deploy on a potential recruiter or hiring manager.
Stay In Touch With Your Network
You won’t always get results right away when you network; it can take months, maybe even years, before a connection pays off. It helps to think of networking like gardening— be patient and care for your contacts like a tomato plant, putting in the hours until it finally yields some delicious fruit. Remember birthdays, reach out and celebrate their accomplishments on social media, and arrange for the occasional in-person meetup. If you know their hobbies and personal interests, send them an occasional heads-up about interesting events or news they’re into. It’s a good way to show you care without being too heavy-handed. Much like your pitch, you want to modulate how you stay in touch with your network—a one-size-fits-all approach could alienate people if you’re too forward or contact them through a medium they dislike.
Reciprocity Is The Name Of The Game
There’s a term in online networks for people who have a negative effect on their communities by downloading more than they upload. These users are called leeches, and represent a cautionary tale for how to network. You don’t want to be a free rider benefiting off the efforts of your network—you need to give back as much as you get. Share a job lead with someone in your network. Make introductions and connect peers, write personal references, and be generous with your time and expertise (within reason).
“You might even find it helpful to block time each week to devote to networking,” Pinch said. Cardenez agrees: "Plan on working on your networking weekly and you will find your circle of people will grow quickly."
Be someone who strengthens and helps a network grow; don’t be a leech that drains it for your benefit alone.