Many people cringe when they hear the word “networking,” especially those just starting out in their careers. The idea of “meeting and greeting” strangers intimidates them, and seeking out people who can possibly help them advance professionally brings out the fear of rejection. However, networking is what the most successful and savviest business professionals say got them to where they are today. They built mutually beneficial relationships that served as a support system and boosted their careers. Building a network of people that will help you grow and thrive is a task you will be both consciously and unconsciously doing for the rest of your life. You have to always be on the lookout for people in both high and low places who can be added to your network—not just your Facebook friends list. There are individuals out there who can help you land your dream job, turn you on to professions you never thought twice about, give you an idea to bring in truckloads of dough, or simply change your life just by being supportive—and you haven’t even met them yet. And you won’t if you don’t make networking an ongoing task. There are various ways you can build your network:
- Through colleagues and business associates
- Through memberships in professional and social organizations
- Through your relatives, friends, and their peers
- Through religious involvement
- Through social functions and community events
- Through volunteering
- Through conferences and programs for people in your profession
- Through leveraging social media using websites like LinkedIn
Most of the networking you will do will take place informally—with people you will meet without even trying. Because of this, it’s important not to make assumptions about people and subsequently miss out on opportunities. Just because someone isn’t in your field doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t know and can’t connect you to someone influential who is. Just because someone in your field is of a different ethnicity doesn’t mean he or she is less likely to want to help you. Be open to having polite conversations with strangers and having real conversations with people who seem interesting. Don’t discount anyone.
While you are bound to meet people of influence by accident, other connections you make will take place through actual networking events. Walking into one of these events alone may bring back the same butterflies you felt on the first day of school when you were looking for a place to sit at lunch. While it may have seemed like you were the only lonely-looking girl struggling to find a seat next to someone cool, the majority of the girls probably felt the same way.
That’s just how networking events are. No one wants to look lonely, unimportant, and bored. Everyone came to mix and mingle, and chances are that if you approach someone they will be relieved that you did. The following are tips to help you be better prepared at your next networking event.
Before the Function:
- Review your purpose for attending the function. Are you coming to meet a specific person, get some contacts in your profession, or just learn more about the hosts of the function?
- Plan to arrive on time for the function. If you’re attending a meeting that offers networking before it starts, arrive early enough to participate in the networking portion of the meeting. If you arrive on the tail end, people may have already broken off into groups.
- Create a short introduction about yourself. Example: “I’m a grad student in Emory University’s sociology program, and I plan on becoming a sociology professor, hopefully at a school in California, where I’m from. Right now I’m searching for a position within a non-profit that focuses on either kids or health.”
- Have more than enough professional-looking business cards with you, and make sure you have easy access to them.
- Dress appropriately. Professional networking events normally call for business casual attire.
At the Function:
- Greet people you know so you can be introduced to others.
- Introduce yourself to the host of the event. Request introductions to people whom the host recommends you meet.
- Take the initiative to introduce yourself to other people, especially people who may have seen you once or twice but were never introduced to you.
- Introduce others to people you’ve just met.
- Exchange contact info with the people you meet.
After the Function:
- Write notes to yourself on the back of the business cards you’re given (or put notes in your phone)—something that will help jog your memory about people when you look at their cards/contact info again. Also include the date and name of the function.
- Contact those individuals who interested you within seven days. Remind them of who you are and where you met, and briefly explain why you’re interested in speaking with them further or meeting up.
- Think about how you could have networked better. Did you miss out on an opportunity to meet someone because you were scared or didn’t know how to break into a conversation? Did you neglect to tell people something important about you and your line of work? You did bring enough business cards, didn’t you?
Becoming a networking pro may take a little time, but after enough of these events you will be able to work a room of professionals like you worked a room full of your college peers at the parties you miss. The only difference is that working the room now could mean working your way up in your professional career.