By: Devin Morrissey
Those in the business world know networking is important, but perhaps we don’t understand just how important it is. We see it as part of a larger picture — and indeed that’s true — yet what’s also true is that it likely isn’t as in focus as it should be.
The president of the New York Stock Exchange, Tom Farley, went so far as to tell Fortune, “When I think about my own career, I owe every job I’ve ever had to networking.”
There’s solid evidence that while networking may not be the end all, be all for everyone, it is certainly a non-negotiable part of successful professional career. And if you’re in the position to flesh out your potential to make networking work, then this piece is for you.
Why Networking Matters
Professional networking is about meeting other professionals within your industry or similar industries and building mutually beneficial relationships with them.
The end goal is that you have professionals within your industry who are in a position to go to bat for you. Whether it comes in the form of making a recommendation, bolstering your reputation, or helping you meet other important individuals, networking has the potential to make all of those things happen.
But it also matters because you can position yourself to boost others up. Networking can take on a cyclical nature; when you go out of your way to do something for others, people take note of your character, and will often reciprocate with their own efforts.
According to Dr. Chester Spell, Professor of Management at Rutgers University, “The practice of networking, however, is often abused by people who are so eager to advance their own positions that they leave negative impressions with the very people they hope to impress.”
These relationships must be mutually beneficial. It is crucial you network thoughtfully so that you are seen as a positive addition to someone else’s network, and so that you can also confidently go to bat for them when the time arises.
How to Implement Networking
If you’re ready to implement networking, you have to strategize with the same thoughtfulness you would a business plan or a marketing campaign. While broadly speaking networking falls under the definition we’ve noted above, to accomplish it successfully you have to be able think in specifics.
As Sherri Edwards writes for Forbes, “Networking is typically the best way to learn about new opportunities, whether it is work related or otherwise. But random efforts produce random results. If you are not getting the results you had hoped for by attending events or ‘hanging out’ with friends, then perhaps your preparation for those meetings needs a little work.”
To ensure you don’t waste your time or the time of others, assess what needs to happen practically to accomplish your networking goals now and to build a foundation for future professional success.
Know What Your Goals Are
The best way to get anywhere is to work backwards. In other words, you never arrive where you need to be if you don’t know where you intend to go. Before you start, decide what this looks like for you.
Is there a specific portion of your industry that you want or need to learn more about? Do you want to find a mentor? Are you hoping to create connections in a specific circle? Those are the questions that will guide you as you decide where to exert your networking energy.
Be Clear About Your Career Aspirations
In an effort to ensure you do not come across as pushy or less than tactful, we may be tempted in professional circles not to show our cards. But that is the same as expecting others to read your mind.
If you know what your goals are — and you should — be intentional about them. Like-minded, networking professionals are going to want to foster relationships with those who are clear and upfront
This is especially important for entrepreneurs and small business owners. According to the entrepreneurial experts at Arizona State University, “Entrepreneurs may have to do everything themselves, including taking on all the executive roles typically done by multiple people at a larger organization. While autonomy is often the biggest draw for being your own boss, you must have a broad set of professional skills and know the fundamentals of business to be successful.”
If your career goals are outside your level of expertise, fostering a network of experienced professionals can be just the thing that keeps your company from failure.
Additionally, we not only want to be around others who are genuine about their intentions, professionals respect goals; they want to network with others who are invested in forward momentum.
Prepare Your Intro
Networking often involves beginning relationships from scratch. Most people don’t love walking up to a stranger and initiating a conversation. But starting off on the right foot is really important. So, prepare yourself to do it well.
Coaching and consulting expert Rhett Power says, “Take time to develop a 30-second description of yourself, your mission, and your business. Make it informative and compelling. When someone asks you about yourself and what you do, don’t blow your opportunity. Deliver your elevator speech — it may be your only chance.”
You should not only know what you’re going to say, but plan questions to ask those you want to incorporate into your network. The key to make first-time conversations run smoothly is to think about them in advance; don’t leave them or your future goals up to chance.
Maintain the Relationship
If you hit it off with someone and acquire their contact information, that is only the beginning. Networking that reaps rewards is long-term. Much like personal relationships, network relationships grow in value as they are continually fostered.
The way you follow-up on a relationship depends on the status of the relationship and the need for furthered growth.
Send an email. Do this immediately to solidify your identity in their minds. Remind them why they gave you their card in the first place. And then schedule consistent communication so that the relationship has what it needs to continue.
Recognize their life events. The information that social media provides means you have access to relevant content that can foster connection. You can help them celebrate birthdays and other successes, and you can empathize when appropriate.
If there’s a clear way you can demonstrate your value as a networking connection — jump on it. Make an effort to become an asset to them. If done wisely, this in and of itself will bolster your reputation within your industry.
And just as good, it will create a favorable impression that will lend itself to your relationships being willing and eager to utilize their connections and influence to benefit you.
Pursue Face-to-Face Contact
In the digital age, it is tempting to do everything via technology. However, relationship building is better in person. It’s easier to get to know people and understand them. Not only that, it’s a way to differentiate yourself from all of the contacts that are just relying on email and messaging.
At the very least your first meet should only be about relationship building, with little to no business agenda. You don’t want to continually create this idea that people, even those you have professional relationships with, are only valuable in terms of furthering your career.
Consider how you can best make that happen.
For example, in an age where everyone is battling for facetime with the individuals who can make or break careers, golf can play a valuable role as a space to make worthwhile connections happen. It’s become a movie cliche for a reason: it actually works.
According to James Kerr for Inc., “Playing the game with clients and colleagues gives you additional insights into their personalities. Similarly, playing the game will give you insights into your psyche, too. To become good at it requires time and patience. Golf can also become that common interest that creates the bonds that last a lifetime.”
So go back over golf etiquette you’ve forgotten, get out there, and start building some meaningful relationships.
Ultimately, networking can provide the things for your career that you can’t acquire yourself. It provides access to the knowledge, experience, and connections of other professionals within your industry.
It’s the perfect example of the fact that a little boldness and creativity can take your career to the next level. And even more than that, you may actually come to the place where you find that in the process of professional networking you’ve made some new, meaningful friendships, career goals aside.