How to Maximize Professional Networking

We’ve all experienced it. You’re at a professional networking event, having a meaningful conversation with an acquaintance, when suddenly the two of you are bombarded by a stranger reciting their 30-second elevator pitch, then thrusting a business card into each of your hands. As you watch in horror, you see that same stranger bounce from person to person and group to group, repeating the same brash interaction with no attempt at listening, asking questions, or forming real connections.

Awkward.

It’s pretty obvious to everyone that this isn’t the right way to network. Still, many people feel unsure of exactly how to cultivate professional relationships in a tactful, authentic, and beneficial way.

So how do you network effectively? Here are a few tips for making the most of your next opportunity to network with business connections and maximize benefits from the relationships you make.

Prioritize Quality Over Quantity

Having an enormous collection of business cards won’t do you much good if you can’t remember who any of those people are and if they don’t know who you are. As with most things in life, the quality of your professional relationships is far more important than how many people you know.

Adam Rifkin, named “The Best Networker in Silicon Valley” by Fortune magazine, says, “Do not be transactional about networking.” It’s not about what the other person can do for you. Asking a favor of someone you’ve just met is bad manners for one thing, and for another, your request isn’t likely to be met.

Instead of counting the number of people in your contact list, consider this: how many of those people would actually, willingly do you a favor? How many would be excited to help you professionally in any way, without your having to ask?

Cultivate professional relationships that really matter, in which you genuinely share a common interest with the other person. Develop a rapport with your connections in authentic, meaningful ways. It takes time to build lasting relationships; allow them that breathing room!

And if you are hoping to benefit from a professional relationship, you should expect to reciprocate that expectation by making connections and giving whatever talents or expertise you might be able to bring.

Be Generous

Give a compliment. Do a favor. Email out of the blue to offer a connection or resource. In short, be generous and gracious.

Rifkin has a fantastic strategy called “The Five-Minute Favor”: he does one brief favor for a professional connection every day. He gives some examples of five-minute favors: a quick email of introduction between colleagues who don’t know each other, writing some feedback, acting as a reference, or sharing a connection’s content on social media. These five-minute (or less!) gestures cost you very little effort or time, but they can make a big difference to the recipient.

Listen Well

As in any other conversation or relationship, networking well requires listening well. Pay attention to the what the other person has to say and contribute thoughtfully, rather than being ready to jump in with your elevator pitch at any moment. Draw out your new connection with questions. Ask their opinion. And don’t be afraid to offer your opinion or an anecdote—make the conversation personal.

If you expect to meet someone specific at an event, such as a speaker or host, consider doing a little research into their company or background so that you’ll be prepared to speak with them.

Develop Relationships You Already Have

You already have a powerful network built up around you; it just needs to be nurtured. Get to know your current coworkers better (more on that later). Friendly conversation will make the workday more pleasant for both of you, and you may have beneficial insights to share with each other.

Reconnect with friends, colleagues, or former mentors with whom you’ve lost touch. They’ll be happy to hear from you! You can touch base with a quick email or social media message, but if possible, use that initial online connection to set up a coffee date or other in-person meetup.

Ask for an Introduction

Introducing yourself to someone new—particularly to someone high-powered or high-profile—can feel intimidating or impersonal. Find someone among your current network who’s in touch with someone you’re interested in meeting and who might be able to give you an introduction. This can help ensure the interaction goes smoothly. It’s also more likely that your new connection will remember you and feel kindly towards you if a friend or colleague has vouched for you.

Have Realistic Expectations About Professional Networking

At a networking event, set a small goal—introducing yourself to two or three new people, for example, rather than trying to meet everyone there. Not only is it more important to have meaningful interactions than many interactions (quality over quantity again!), networking should be something that is sustainable over time, rather than something that burns you out.

Consider how long it’s practical or productive to stay at an event. Does your schedule (professional and personal) allow for you to stay the whole time, or is an hour or so more doable?

Plan ahead to network. In their book The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, authors Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha recommend keeping an “Interesting People Fund”—socking away some pocket money for going out to coffee or dinner with people you admire.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Like any other skill, networking can be improved with practice. (Bonus: if you are introverted or shy, practicing networking will help make it less intimidating.) Every day, take opportunities at lunchtime or on a coffee break to connect with coworkers— particularly those you don’t know very well. Send a Facebook or LinkedIn message to reconnect with an old friend or colleague. Small, cumulative efforts help you to get more comfortable with networking—and can have big results.

Connect Your Connections

Now that you have a strong network of connections, begin introducing them to each other! You can do this on a small scale with an email of introduction between two people with common interests, industries, and goals, or by introducing them in person at an event.

On a larger scale, why not host an event or start a networking organization? If you’ve found your one-on-one interactions to be beneficial, chances are your connections will benefit from meeting one another, too. Create a community of like-minded individuals who can support each other as they move along their career paths.

The best network relationship is essentially just like any other healthy relationship. It should be reciprocal and genuine rather than goal-oriented. It will take time and work to develop and maintain. But if pursued correctly, the payoff can be huge—not only will the connections you cultivate be beneficial professionally, they may blossom into friendships.

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