(Almost) Painless Networking
By Lynn Tanner
Why does networking have such a bad reputation? Some people find the prospect of approaching strangers terrifying; others feel the whole process is just an excuse for sanctioned disingenuousness (i.e., feigning an interest in someone to get something in return); and others simply hate having yet another “useless work obligation” added to their day.
However, networking, in its truest sense, is not intended to be a self-serving exercise, but instead is a method for building long-term relationships over time that are mutually beneficial to both parties and can be done in a way that doesn’t feel scary or awkward. Below we’ll discuss different methods you can use to network, and some practical tips for effective and nearly painless networking that might just make you change your mind about how much you “hate networking.”
What’s so great about networking?
The finance business is highly driven by relationships. People want to work with people that they know and trust. Therefore, it makes sense that there is high correlation between people who are well-connected and people who are highly successful. Some reasons for this include:
- Increased access to potential clients and customers (and all the financial and other benefits that accompany being a “rainmaker”);
- Job search advantages from receiving access to unpublished job opportunities and referrals;
- A wider range of professionals from various industries with whom you can collaborate and share expertise and insights (including the kind of stuff you don’t find on Google);
- Access to prospective mentors and advisors;
- Increased visibility and reputational enhancement within the industry;
- Access to featured opportunities within the industry (e.g., speaking roles in conferences, publication opportunities and awards);
- Ability to provide referrals to others, so as to further solidify and expand your network; and
- Access to the networks of your network, which magnify the benefits of each of the above.
Most effective networking methods
The most effective networking method is…well, there really isn’t just one, just as there really isn’t a “best” way to develop any other kind of relationship. The strategy that feels most authentic to you is likely the right choice for you. You may need to try a few different methods until you find a comfortable fit, keeping in mind that what works well for your colleagues may not work at all for you, and vice versa. (More on different networking opportunities and styles below.)
Regardless of the networking method you choose, you will need to treat relationship-building and maintenance as an essential part of your career and devote the same level of focus and dedication to networking as you do to other aspects of your job. A good way to make sure the process doesn’t fall victim to life’s other demands is to (a) schedule specific times each week to devote to networking efforts, (b) create a detailed action plan to strengthen existing relationships and develop new relationships, and (c) keep track or your progress and update your plan regularly.
Another critical requirement is perseverance. Building and maintain a network takes time, regardless of your skill level and, for most of us, it’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. (Remember, B-school took years to teach you how to model; most of us never received any meaningful instructions as to how to network, so be patient and don’t give up just because you have an awkward moment or two, or haven’t doubled your business in six months.)
Sources of networking opportunities – The world is your networking oyster
Organic networking: Even though we rarely notice it, our everyday lives provide a plethora of networking opportunities. People we deal with everyday can be valuable parts of our networks, but sometimes we fail to recognize them as such because we encounter them in a nonbusiness environment. For example, think about the possibilities that could be achieved from networking with:
- Friends and family (and their respective friends and families);
- Parents of children’s friends;
- High school and college friends;
- Former co-workers and clients;
- People we meet in connection with:
- Volunteer activities (if you don’t already have a favorite cause, check out VolunteerMatch, Idealist, CatchaFire, Points of Light’s HandsOn Network);
- Church and civic group activities;
- Alumni events; and
- Gym and coffee shop friends.
Networking opportunities that stem from these relationships can be significant for two reasons. Engaging in activities we enjoy or working in pursuit of causes we care about gives us the chance to form deep and meaningful connections with like-minded people in situations not tainted by questions of motivation. The second is that networking through these activities allows us to fulfi ll our familial and other obligations and/or having fun while simultaneously building our professional networks. Think of it as lighting two candles with one match.
Non-business networking: As we get older, it becomes more challenging to meet new people, so more and more people attend events sponsored by groups such as MeetUp, EventBrite, Eventful or LinkedIn Circles, which can lead to anything from casual acquaintances to meaningful relationships, and can often result in the benefits otherwise found only through organic networking.
Structured professional networking: Finally, of course, there is the classic networking method that most of us think of when the word “networking” comes to mind – professional association networking events. This encompasses everything from trade conferences to national and international professional events. However, there are smaller (and less expensive) events available locally. Try a simple Google search for “professional networking events near me”, or a quick perusal of the Directory of Associations or 10times.com, and you’ll be amazed at what you find. The Secured Finance Network offers tons of networking events, both national and local chapter events: www.sfnet.com.
Tips for making the most of a networking event
Below are some tips for making your next networking event more productive and less stressful.
Prior to the event
Update your social media profiles: if you make an impression on someone during the event, it’s probably best for them to come across your current employment information (rather than your spring break photos) when they look you up.
Due diligence: If you can obtain the attendee list in advance, spend some time studying it. If anyone you know is on the list, reach out to them in advance to arrange a meeting, or if you’re only loosely connected, have a mutual friend arrange an introduction (beforehand, whether in person or by email, or at the event). This way, you are able to meet the people you were hoping to meet (without leaving the situation to luck), and also helps you feel a bit more confident, because you are walking into the event with a plan in mind.
Make a plan: Set specific some goals for the event (e.g., meet up with X who will introduce me to Y, and meet at least three different equity sponsors). Doing this not only keeps you on track, but focusing on a task helps reduce anxiety.
Elevator pitches: Create, memorize and practice an “elevator pitch.” This is a short, prepared, well-rehearsed speech (maybe about a minute or two long) that summarizes who you are, what you do, how you add value, and includes a “next-step” offer. The idea is for it to be short enough to say during an elevator ride and interesting enough to make your elevator companion want to see you after the elevator ride ends.
At the event
Help from the host and/or playing the host: If you can, arrive a bit early. It may give you some time to spend with the host, who can provide some insights about the event and the participants, and will hopefully agree to introduce you to a few people. But in any event, arriving early gives you the opportunity to “greet” guests as they arrive (and before they become locked into seemingly never-ending conversations).
Finding someone to approach: This is where you start putting all your preparation to work. If you’ve arranged to meet someone, go find them, and move to the “First Meeting” section below. If not, this is the part where you take a deep breath. Walking up to a group of strangers isn’t easy, but it’s a small price to pay for what you can gain. (Re-read the “What’s So Great About Networking” section above if you’re feeling your courage withering.) Some ideas for finding a welcoming group include (a) approaching a group with an odd number of participants (since 3-way conversations can be challenging in loud environments and someone will naturally gravitate towards you), or (b) approaching a circle of people, waiting for a break in the conversation and then extending your hand and introducing yourself.
Opening lines and discussion points: Try to prepare some opening lines, conversation points and questions in advance, perhaps regarding the event, the sponsoring organization, industry trends, interesting non-work topics or, if you know whom you’ll be meeting, your potential contact. You may never need your script, but it’s a good confidence builder to know you have it. If you forget what you planned, you can always rely on situational cues, such as the following:
- The “What’s That?” Essentially, the idea here is to point to something your potential contact is holding, wearing or looking at. (Similarly, you can wear an interesting piece of jewelry or the like that will make it easier for people to approach you with a “what’s that?” too.)
- Immediate points of commonality: Are you standing in the same line, did you order the same drink, do you belong to the same organization, are you from the same city?Ask something about something you have in common, even if it’s fleeting.
- Requests for opinions: Ask your potential contact for their opinion on something. Anything from a serious question about an industry topic to their thoughts on the puff pastries in front of you will do. People like to feel like their opinion matters, and most are more than happy to share their thoughts. (Try to avoid truly confrontational topics though.)
- Requests for advice or referrals: Most people inherently like to feel helpful and needed and will be more than happy to oblige requests within reason.
- Exciting projects: Ask your potential contact if they’ve been working on any exciting projects lately. Once they begin, you can likely keep the conversation moving by asking additional questions or relating your own experiences.
- The elephant: If all else fails, tell your potential target that you’re new or a bit nervous and ask if you can chat with them for a while. Most people will respond kindly, and you may well be able to move the conversation to something more meaningful.
- The First Meeting: Assuming you’ve found someone that you’ve “clicked with”, keep the following tips in mind, so that you can begin building a relationship with your new contact:
- No collecting stacks of business cards: Your goal is to build true rapport with someone (or a few “someones”), not to collect a stack of business cards. Try to focus on getting to know the person in front of you, rather than looking around for the next opportunity. That being said, avoid spending the entire event just speaking with one person. Try to invite others into your conversation.
- Pay attention: Be genuine, ask questions and really listen to the answers. Think of your potential contact as a future friend, not just a sales target.
- Get personal: Move the conversation from superficial topics (e.g., the weather and the food in front of you) to something more meaningful, so that you’re learning about your potential contact as a person and finding commonality. Be sure to remember the details you’ve learned; if you think you’re likely to forget, write them down. It’s not a great feeling to share something intimate with someone only to find out they either didn’t listen or promptly forgot.
- Value: Find a way to provide value for your potential contact. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture, but try to find something. Just as importantly, if you promise to do anything, write it down and actually do it – quickly!
- Don’t be weird and desperate, but do get a second date: You wouldn’t propose marriage on your first date, as it would likely make you seem weird and desperate; similarly, you shouldn’t ask for business at your first meeting; but, don’t end the interaction before you’ve organized how you’ll next interact (specifically).
- After the event; maintaining the relationship: Once you’ve connected with a contact and made plans to re-connect afterwards, you are on your way to developing a relationship, but this is literally just the firststep. Following-up is key to building and maintaining relationships and staying top of mind. Below are some tips for ways to do this:
- Invite your potential contact to your LinkedIn network as soon as reasonably possible after your meeting and then try to reach out personally within 1-3 days. If possible, plan an in-person meeting shortly thereafter. People have short memories; if you don’t act quickly, they may well forget (making all your hard work for naught).
- Remember what you decided about how you could add value. Try to do it straight away, but, if it’s not something that you can do immediately, remind them that you’re “on it”. Reconnect often. Keep in regular touch through regular calls, coffee dates, etc. Real social interaction may seem to be a lot of work, but the more you can do it, the more likely you are to forge real bonds and remain in the forefront of people’s thoughts.
- Send birthday cards, interesting articles (preferably about something related to something you discussed or know they are interested in), updates about what you’re doing and congratulations on things they’ve done.
- Reciprocity: Introduce people and make referrals, including within your network. This is beneficial to both or you.
- Keep adding value. Try to end your interactions with a plan for your next meeting and a way you can provide some value in the interim.
For the remote worker
Remote workers can participate in all of the networking opportunities described above, but the lack of the day-to-day interactions with coworkers can feel a bit isolating. Consider some of the following options:
Co-work with a colleague: Just because you don’t regularly attend an office setting doesn’t mean you can’t work in the same space with a colleague. If you’re working on the same project, it’s an obvious choice, but, even if you’re not, everyone probably appreciates the chance to have brief conversations during the workday with someone other than their cat. If you don’t have colleagues in your area, try working in a co-working space. (They’re popular for a reason.)
Video chats: Theoretically, it shouldn’t make a difference whether we speak with someone over the phone or by video chat, but for some reason, video calls tend to make people feel closer and more connected. Think of it like the difference between a description of a person vs. a picture of a person accompanied by the same description; which one makes you feel like you know the person better and/or are more connected to the person? Same thing with video chats.
In-person meetings: Whenever possible, meet with colleagues, clients and prospects in person, even if it’s not absolutely necessary. If geographical situations make this more challenging, meet with people when they come to your city or vice versa.
Slack: If you manage a team remotely, Slack is a great way for making sure everyone feels updated and connected in a way that emails can’t.
Weekly status meetings: Even if there’s no pressing reason to meet, it’s helpful to find out what other people are working on, struggling over or succeeding with. Since you can’t share these things at the watercooler, have short weekly sessions where you touch base.
Host an event or brainstorming session: No need to host an international event, but a short meeting where you hold a discussion, brainstorm ideas or just have a dinner can be a great connector.
Become a knowledge center: Try to establish expertise in something so that people seek you out on a regular basis.
For the introvert
Introverts are found all over the professional and social sphere, and are often incredibly successful but, if you’re an introvert, networking can be challenging. However, all hope is not lost; consider the following:
One-on-one meetings: Introverts shine in one-on-one settings. Instead of struggling through the main reception at a 1,500-person conference, make dates to meet people outside the main hustle and bustle area for a quiet coffee.
Warm introductions: Take the anxiety and awkwardness out of having to walk up to strangers. If possible, have a mutual friend or colleague introduce you (or set up a meeting for you beforehand). Warm introductions allow the stage to be set for a non-awkward conversation.
Ask for referrals and recommendations: Take advantage of your skills in one-on-one situations and ask those people you meet with to provide you with referrals, recommendations and introductions.
Social media: There is a lot to be said for face-to-face meetings, but there’s nothing wrong with using social media as a warm-up for the face-to-face meeting.
Bring a friend: An extroverted friend is a great way to help bring you into groups and conversations and make sure the conversation keeps moving. Of course, you need to make sure you pick a friend who understands you and your special talents and can make sure you shine too.
Breathe and don’t overthink: Congratulate yourself for stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s ok if there’s some awkwardness and it’s ok if you’re having anxiety. Take a deep breath, try to relax, and if you can, try to reach out to someone who looks as uncomfortable as you feel. It may just benefit you both.
Networking is essential and, with so many options, opportunities, tips and tricks available, every professional can likely find a way to network in a way that works for them. So, what are you waiting for? Give it a try - you might even learn to love it – don’t worry, we won’t tell…