Do any of these situations sound familiar to you?
- You’re at a course sitting with a table of complete strangers. You’re half an hour early, and there’s nowhere to go get coffee and kill time. You’d like to just pull out your phone and check Facebook, but no phones are allowed in the room, so you’re just staring at people smiling awkwardly and looking away.
- Your boss sends you to a conference and tells you he expects you to “get out there and network” to build some strategic contacts for the team. You barely know what he means by “strategic,” and you’d rather crawl into a hole and die than approach strangers. What would you even say?
- There’s an after work cocktail event that you really should go to, even for just an hour. But you’re pretty new and won’t know anyone other than your boss. You know that if you go you will stand in the corner and pray that someone you know walks by.
It’s possible that you would meet any of those situations head on and be an amazing networker either because it comes naturally to you, or because you’ve learned out to fake it and get it done in spite of your discomfort.
That last one is me, by the way.
I’d rather stand in a corner at a party, watching and observing, happy to chat with people who stop by to say hi, but not really wanting to be proactive and meeting others.
That is my core preference, and it’s one that I’ve had to work on for years in order to master.
Because you do have to master it in order to be effective in most jobs, to make important connections, and to let the world know that you’re out there.
Why Is Networking Important?
Let’s first breakdown what it is.
Networking is a term that refers to any activities that we perform in order to meet new people in order to fulfill a strategic objective.
That last bit is important: “in order to fulfill a strategic objective.”
If you are wandering around a room chatting with people simply because you like to chat, then you are not networking. You are being you and doing something you love to do.
If you are, on the other hand, wandering around the room with the express purpose of meeting your future life partner, finding someone who works in an area you’d like to know more about, building relationships in a group that is important to you, or being introduced to a person important to your current project at work — well, then you’re networking.
Networking can happen spontaneously when you find yourself in a situation filled with people you don’t know.
It can also happen purposefully when you decide you are going to “go to that thing” in order to meet the kind of person you need to meet.
Usually networking happens face-to-face, but these days technology makes it easier to reach out to people digitally and engage that way.
Networking activities then, include things like:
- Meeting people at a scheduled event (party, conference, meeting, course),
- Reaching out to people to ask to chat with them (cold call or through an introduction), or
- Running in to people at a casual event (party, lunch, etc).
The reason these things are important is that your ability to be successful in your work (and in your life, really) depends on your ability to build and maintain strong, supportive, and strategic relationships.
You are much less likely to be recognized and promoted if you sit in a corner all day and refuse to engage with others.
Organizations look for your ability to build strategic partnerships in order to advance the team’s agenda and get things done more effectively and efficiently.
You’re also more likely to have trouble dealing with and bouncing back from hard times if you don’t have a personal network to support you through those times.
Why Are We So Scared Of Networking?
Most people are afraid of something — afraid of sounding stupid, afraid of people not liking them, or afraid of not fitting in.
Others just find it exhausting to chatter and smile and keep talking all the time!
In my experience there is one thing that you must do to conquer your fear:
Assume that the person you are about to talk to is nice.
One of the things we are afraid of is that the other person will think we sound stupid or awkward.
Nice people don’t think those things!
And most people are nice.
(And if they’re not, they aren’t a good person for you to add to your network anyway.)
So What’s My Formula?
You have to put some effort into becoming a great networker, and your success depends on three things:
If you have a networking event in your future, do a little research.
Who is going to be at this event? Are any of them good contacts for your work or project? (LinkedIn is a great tool here.)
Research the backgrounds of people you’d like to meet and prepare questions you’d like to ask if you meet them.
Let’s say you want to meet a woman who has a job that you aspire to:
- How did you get into your industry?
- What skills would you say are “must haves” in your work?
- What do you love about your job?
What are the main topics that will be covered?
If you’re not expert in them, write down three questions that you’d love to have answered.
For instance, if you are going to a Nuclear Power conference and know nothing about Nuclear Power (although why you’d be going, I don’t know, but that’s another story), you might want to know,
- How does Nuclear Power fit in with today’s climate change story?
- What kind of industries rely on Nuclear Power today?
- Is the Nuclear Power industry in decline or is it actually expanding right now?
And although it’s not exactly research, you need to have a few sentence about yourself at the ready in case people ask about you! (This is critical when you’re about to attend a course and you have to introduce yourself to people at your table.)
You want to be able to talk about yourself in an interesting way that doesn’t kill the conversation, but instead inspires the other person to ask follow up questions:
Next you need to actually practice talking to people.
Ideally you will do this with a trusted friend who will play the role of the people you want to meet, so that you can practice asking your questions in a natural way, or will play the role of a total stranger asking you about yourself!
You: Hi, Ms. Smith?
Ms. Smith: Yes?
You: I’m Bob Jones and I wanted to introduce myself because I’m really interested in your background and career path.
Ms. Smith: Oh really? Well, it’s certainly been an interesting path. What would you like to know?
You: Well I know that you’ve been working in the hospitality industry for quite some time, and as Director of Operations for such a huge hotel chain, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about what you think the essential skills are to get to that point. I’m interested in the hospitality industry myself, you see, and am just starting out.
Ms. Smith: Wow. That could take a while, but I can tell you right off the bat that you have to be open to every single opportunity you come across in the hotel you work for. What do you do now?
Your practice person should help you work on those interesting, leading questions, and follow-up questions, and — and this is important — how to exit so you don’t monopolize their time.
You have to do this a lot.
Sorry, but it’s true.
The first couple of times will be SO difficult, and you’ll feel awkward and run out of the event as soon as possible.
But if you start small and set yourself some realistic goals, you will get there.
Perhaps you write down: I’m going to go to one networking event each quarter, and my goal is to meet at least one person at each event and follow up with an email or coffee chat.
That way, you don’t just wander around each event wondering if you can go home now.
So your long term success as a networker (Ns) is directly related to your effort in Research (R), Practice (P), and Freqency (F).
Or, for the nerdy types, like me:
There’s your formula for Networking Success.
Now get out there and do it. I know you can!!!