Let’s just get the elephant out of the room, shall we? I know everybody hates networking, but if you want to achieve any degree of success in just about any career, you must make friends with this seemingly mysterious skill.
The word “networking” used to make my eyes roll back in my head when I had just started my career in management consulting. I tried not to gag every time a partner threw the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” at me.
It took me the first three years of my consulting career to figure out the benefits of having a strong and supportive network. That was how rigid I was in my thinking.
Here’s the excuses I told myself as I fought networking — and what I'd tell myself now.
1.“I’m too genuine a person to build fake relationships.”
Networking doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with the person. Networking is getting to know a person in a business context. You want to understand what they’re skilled at and look at common interests and areas to find out where you can collaborate or support them (depending upon the level).
2.“I’m an introvert.”
Don’t hide behind your personality! Even though extroverts are better at socializing, studies show that introverts build more deliberate and stronger relationships in their network. Being an introvert certainly does not mean hiding in a shell. You can still have meaningful discussions about how your skill sets can help peers and seniors — and build your network at the same time.
3. “My work will speak for itself.”
This is the biggest myth. You may be working your tail off in a corner and still not be noticed. Visibility in front of the right audience is what will get you the recognition you deserve. Unless you stand up and speak about your work, getting the right people to know about your skills and the value you bring will take forever.
4. “I’m uncomfortable selling myself.”
Do you feel like a sleazy car salesman when you think of networking? Don’t. Look at networking as an opportunity to inform others about how your skills can help them. If they want to collaborate with you or offer an opportunity, great! If not, maybe this is a foundation for the future. If you don’t, no one else will.
5. “I’m a woman…”
This is the easiest excuse to hide behind and I did so myself for many years. Are you really not scheduling that networking lunch because you’re a woman, or maybe because you’d rather stay in your comfort zone, get some “real” work done, hang with familiar people….the excuses are endless.
How to Stop Making Excuses.
I saw my peers get plum client projects and learning opportunities while I kept getting table scraps. That was when I realized my “career strategy” needed a massive overhaul.
As an introvert, I have to fight my natural tendencies to go into my shell every single day. Having said that, I do think that I’ve gotten really good at networking over the past few years. At the end of the day, I believe it’s more of a change in mindset than anything else.
Here are my top tips to take the pain out of the process.
1. Get out there.
You know the multitude of emails you get about all the social events/trainings in your organization? Start showing up for those! If you freelance, sign up for local events relevant to your industry.
Even if it makes you uncomfortable, talk to at least four people (in different parts of the room) during the event about your skills, interests and what you are working on. Make sure some of these people are senior to you, or at least your peers, so they can connect you with others who are looking for the skills you offer.
2. Mobilize your mentors.
These can be the people you have worked with in recent projects, met during your Day One orientation or any trainings/events you may have attended. Usually, an email request for advice followed up with a quick call is the best way to go.
In-person meetings are even better — whether it is an office meeting or a quick coffee. Make sure you have questions ready and respect their time by starting and closing the meeting as scheduled.
3. Practice targeted networking.
Every third person will tell you that your path to success depends on your network. The question you should be asking yourself is, “Do I have the right network to support my success?”
List out all the professional contacts you have. Evaluate where you want to drive your career in the next two years and how you can engage better with this network to help achieve your professional goals.
Also identify the people you need to know to achieve your goals. Get hold of the organizational structure for your team or department. Identify the key players leading the areas you want to work in and then reach out to one or two levels above you. Can you make a connection through your existing network?
4. Listen and share.
Don’t make it all about you. Show interest in their story and ask relevant questions to learn about their growth in the firm or industry first. Then, share your story and mention common experiences to build rapport and showcase the value you can bring to the table.
Think about how your skills can fit in with what they are working on. How can you contribute? Do you bring a fresh perspective because of your prior experience? Be ready with your elevator pitch and what you can do for them, or why you would like to work with them to make the best use of the networking opportunity.
5. Give, give, give.
This needs to be the theme for every discussion you have with the network you are trying to build. It’s important to communicate your skillset to your new network, but even more important is the offer to collaborate or take some work off their plate. It could be an offer to assist with a workshop or proposal, or even the project they are working on.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of equating your LinkedIn contacts to your network, but real networking is about nurturing your connections over time. It’s not only about what you get from your mentors, sponsors and coaches (and yes, they have different roles) — it’s also about making them successful so they can help you in a higher capacity.
Pro tip: Keep working on building a network. Don’t wait for your current network to collapse like a house of cards and then start afresh. Keep in touch with the people you have worked with in the past and nurture those relationships as an investment for the future.
So, what have been your biggest challenges and learnings about networking?
I’d love to hear in the comments below.
Punya is a former management consultant with 15 years of experience at 2 Big4 firms, serving top Fortune500 clients. She has lived and worked in 6 countries and changed 3 careers working across several industries. Punya is passionate about sharing the crucial, but little known Business Skills that can help you stop playing small, land the most high profile projects and build a reputation that gets you the recognition you deserve. Find her on the BYOND GOOD Blog, Quora, or LinkedIn.