At some point in your career, you’ll probably hear: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s an old cliche for a reason but the truth is that a healthy balance of both is a fast track to success. You should always be looking to expand your network of professional contacts just as you look to expand your professional development. The best way to do this? Networking. It’s something that people struggle with but the truth is, it’s a great way of discovering and opening up new opportunities. In this article, we explore the concept itself and how you can get better at networking.
What is Networking?
Networking is, fundamentally, about meeting people. It’s the concept of building professional relationships that lead to mutual benefits. While most people might think that networking has to be done at specialised events, the truth is much more simple: you’re networking every time you meet someone in a professional capacity. Had a job interview that didn’t pan out? You still have a professional contact that might lead to opportunities in the future. Regularly speaking with suppliers in your current role? These are professional contacts that you may use in the future.
The golden rule of networking is that everyone you meet may be able to help you advance your career – whether it happens now or 10 years in the future.
The core benefits of networking are:
• You stay up-to-date with developments in your field and the key players
• You meet potential vendors, suppliers or freelancers that you use throughout your career
• You gain access to various career development resources
• You can learn more about working in desirable industries or roles
• You meet potential employers or mentors that lead to deeper opportunities
• You get the opportunity to expand your brand
Just remember, you’re always networking in a professional environment. Even if you’re waiting in line for a conference, the people you speak to may be great professional contacts to have. You never know when a relationship may blossom into an opportunity.
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How to Get Better at Networking
If you’re struggling to network or you’re just starting and want to get some tips, here is how to get better at networking:
Leverage your social media
One of the cheapest, easiest and for many people – least anxiety-inducing – ways of networking is via social media. Platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and even Instagram are increasingly becoming great ways to meet professional contacts, build a brand and expand your network. Consider taking time each day to browse and connect with industry peers, post your professional thoughts and create a two-way street of communication.
The important thing to remember with social media is that people use it for different reasons and in most cases, it’s not to be pitched to. Try to keep your interactions personable, authentic and where you can, as casual as possible. Even if you’d love to go out and start speaking to people about a potential new role or business opportunity, the soft sell always works better on social channels.
More importantly, you want to establish yourself as a professional figure. In some cases, you may even want to use social media to build a reputation as an authority around a topic. This is often referred to as a ‘personal brand’ and has helped countless people open up new employment opportunities.
Join a professional body
While this doesn’t apply to every industry, joining a professional group around your current or desired job sector can be a great avenue for networking. The core objective of a professional body is to ensure the legitimacy and professionalism of a particular field but they also provide career development opportunities, mentoring opportunities and support industry events.
Joining a professional body is extremely useful if you’re seeking long-term progression in a field and want the support of people in that position already.
Always be authentic
When it comes to the actual act of networking – particularly in a face-to-face situation – it’s vital to be authentic. People can tell when you’re being insincere or feigning interest, which obviously won’t work in your favour. You want to present the real you and give a good first impression, which will always lead to a more satisfying experience and more effective networking.
This also applies to how you handle a two-way conversation. Practice soft skills such as active listening and engage with the people you’re speaking to. One of the big problems that people often face when networking is making it all about them, which can turn people off quickly.
Ask as many questions as you can!
This is great advice for holding an engaging conversation in general but if you struggle to deal with lulls in conversation, ask a question! People love to talk about themselves and ultimately, this is what networking is – give and take. Take the time to listen to what’s being said and ask relevant follow-up questions.
If you struggle in social situations, a golden rule to remember is ‘ask questions and minimise speaking about yourself’. Ideally, you want to engage the other person with a question and then when they’ve finished, add your context or experiences to help them feel at ease.
At a networking event, for example, you may have some generic questions that you can draw on during the conversation such as:
• Do you go to many networking events? Do you think they’re useful?
• What does your company do? What does your role involve?
• How are you finding your role? How is everything going in your industry?
Stay in contact
One of the worst things you can do is go to a networking event, speak with a bunch of different people in positive ways and then leave it at that.
Always make sure you give out business cards or share contact information with people who seem interested or request it.
The goal of networking is to make professional contacts that you can call on again in the future. This is difficult if you can never get in touch with them!
Remember it is a two-way street
If you take one thing from this article, this is the most important. The point of networking is building mutually beneficial relationships. You’ll want to meet people who can offer advice, pass on contacts or even offer tangible opportunities but you should always be looking to do the same in return.
Knowledge sharing and contacts in hard-to-reach places are all valuable commodities in networking so make sure you’re seeking these out but also offering them to others. Ultimately, networking is about helping each other succeed and this should be in the back of your mind whenever you actively engage in networking.