Gone are the days when hard work alone would get you the career advancement you wanted. In today’s connected world, everything hinges on networking and relationships. The bigger your network, the more doors to opportunities it can open for you.
Networking is often easier for men than women. The business I run (http://www.MBAconnect.net, a social network for MBAs from all business schools worldwide) is all about networking, so it is an integral part of what I do. But for many women, the assertiveness required may be perceived as “masculine” and aggressive, so networking doesn’t come naturally. In my experience running MBAconnect.net, our women members are more reluctant than the men to give out their contact details or to post their pics, often for fear of unwanted sexual advances. This is an added complication that men seem less concerned about.
The good news is that, no matter how weak you are at networking, you can get better. I’m constantly working to improve my networking skills, and here are a few tips I’ve picked up which may help you:
Most of us avoid networking because we’re bad at it. So, when we do it, because we’re out of practice, we don’t get the results we want. As Nike says, “Just do it”. No more excuses. Go to as many networking and business events as you can, so that you have more opportunities to practice. From someone who’s been there, it does get easier, your networking skills will improve and so will your results.
2. Carry business cards and pen and paper wherever you go
I’m always amazed how many people come to networking events without business cards. How can you network if you cannot follow-up on the contacts you’ve made? I keep business cards in my wallet, my gym bag, my car, my laptop bag, and wherever else I can. Even at the shops or the gym, you never know when someone you meet may be a useful contact that you want to connect with afterwards. And because other people often don’t carry business cards, you should also carry pen and paper to take down the other person’s contacts. It’s also a useful memory-jogger to write a short blurb about that person and what you need to follow-up on, on their business card.
3. Pay it Forward
I believe strongly in Suze Orman’s philosophy of open hands i.e. giving without expectation of return. So whenever I can, I try to help others, be it in a business or personal situation, without expecting a return. The simple act of helping others is very rewarding because it ties into my life-goal of helping others get access to positive opportunities. You also never know when you’ll need to ask for help, and if you have helped others in the past, they’ll be more willing to help you when you need it.
4. Go to networking events on your own
If you go to an event with someone you know, such as your spouse, it’s only natural that you’d want to speak to them rather than to strangers at the event. To avoid this, go alone (it’s not as hard as it sounds). If your partner is also going, then deliberately sit with people you don’t know instead of with him/her (but tell your partner why you’re doing this, so they don’t take offence).
5. Quickly assess the value of the contact you’ve made
At networking events, the goal is to meet as many valuable people as possible. With practice, you’ll learn to assess quickly if the person you’re speaking to is a useful contact or not. If they aren’t, don’t waste time (and potential opportunities to meet other valuable contacts). As soon as a gap in conversation comes up, excuse yourself politely and move on. “It was good meeting you, I’m just going to get a drink or going to the bathroom” usually works. Don’t be discouraged if this is difficult – even now, I still battle to find the gap to move on, but it is getting easier with practice.
After each networking event, go through the business cards you’ve collected (and the blurbs you’ve written on them). Then follow-up, e.g. by email, soon after the event with the useful contacts who you want to build a relationship with. This creates a positive, professional impression, and shows the other person that you’re serious about networking and creating valuable relationships.
In conclusion, the only way to get better at networking is to stop thinking yourself out of it and just do it. Get going today, and start building the relationships that can make a hugely positive impact on your career and the number of opportunities that come your way.