5 Ways to Network and Build Connections More Effectively
By: Jordan DeTar / May 24, 2019
Networking (n): a word that evokes fear, anxiety, and discomfort amongst professionals across the globe.
Notorious for its ability to induce dread in today’s professionals, networking gets a bad reputation in the working world – especially amongst those of us who are new to it. When I first heard the term “networking” as a college sophomore, my mind went directly to the vision of a crowded career fair with intimidated students in stiff suits fighting their way into seemingly exclusive circles to get a word in with various companies’ esteemed recruiters. Later, when I realized hectic career fairs swarming with students were certainly not the place to make a genuine, lasting impression on any company, I pictured networking consisting of equally uncomfortable coffee chats marked by sweaty palms, awkward sips, and forced conversation. And while historically this is what networking is, I’m here to tell you that it’s not how it has to – or should – be.
I may be an outlier, but I love networking. And I don’t mean I love that image of a crowded career fair or an awkward coffee chat. I’m talking about the real stuff. What I love is genuinely making connections with people based on similar interests and motivations.
Here’s the thing, networking can absolutely be awkward and uncomfortable and nerve-racking. For some, it may always start like that. But when done right, it has the potential to be exciting and motivating and rewarding. In fact, I’d say networking is probably what energizes me most in my job because it exposes me to new possibilities, connects me with opportunities, and introduces me to the people who have become my professional cheerleaders, mentors, and friends. While many may think of networking as a waste of time that takes away from conducting real business, I can guarantee you that chatting with colleagues and making genuine connections has been the #1 most impactful thing I’ve done for my career. It’s how I’ve gotten internships, landed jobs, and most recently successfully navigated my way to a particularly niche group within my consulting firm.
Over the past 4+ years that I’ve been building and expanding my network, I’ve learned a few lessons about networking that I think most – if not all – young professionals could benefit from. Read on to see how networking can go from being your most dreaded professional task to your most exciting workday activity.
1. Target your networking
One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to networking is that you should talk to everyone and anyone. Wrong. Whether you’re looking to build relationships in a company you’re interested in or within the company you work, target your networking in a way that will be most beneficial for everyone involved. For example, if you’re only interested in marketing, then seek out people in that company’s marketing department. Don’t waste your time (or anyone else’s) setting up coffee chats with people in the finance department. Starting as an analyst in consulting can be intimidating as we’re typically all generalists, meaning we don’t specialize in an offering or an industry. When looking to build your network, think about what you may be interested in, and target your efforts in that area. I already knew I was most interested in mergers and acquisitions (M&A), so I spent my first few months targeting my networking to the M&A space. Part of the reason that I enjoy networking so much is that I talk to people about topics that I’m genuinely interested in, making our conversations an exciting learning opportunity that I look forward to.
2. Know how to brand yourself
Before walking into a networking conversation (or ideally, before even setting one up), think about how you want to present yourself, or as they say it in consulting, “know your brand”. In college, I may have branded myself as a dedicated Vanderbilt student pursuing a job in organizational consulting due to my interest in analyzing how companies function and my desire to solve problems that will make businesses more efficient, effective, and desirable workplaces. When looking to expand my network within the consulting industry, knowing my brand – essentially understanding my purpose – made it easier to narrow down which firms, practices, and people I should speak to. Without knowing and communicating your brand, it’s easy to get lost in a jumbled mess of networking and end up in awkward conversations in which neither side understands the purpose.
3. Have a plan
Want to make a networking conversation especially stressful? Go in with no plan. Thinking about what the purpose of the meeting is (i.e. what you want to get out of it) is as important as setting up the meeting itself. My tip is to make a list of questions you want answered (i.e. How did you break into the industry? What advice do you have for someone at my stage who’s interested in pursuing a career in XYZ?). Bring the list with you, that way you’ll have something to fall back on should the conversation become dry. In addition, too many people go into networking conversations thinking of it as an interview or a test. Instead of putting so much unnecessary pressure on yourself, just think of it as a conversation – because that’s what it is! Don’t worry too much about “messing up” or saying the wrong thing. You’re just there to learn – so don’t sweat every detail..
4. Offer yourself
While you probably set this meeting up because you want to gain something, don’t forget that this person is offering you his/her time, which is precious. Be sure to offer your own help – it may even get you a job! Whenever I set up meetings within my firm, I always end the conversation insisting that they shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to me if I can ever be of any help to them with any related projects. This positions me in a good place to be considered helpful, while also opening the door for opportunities in a particular area of interest.
5. Follow up
While reaching out and setting up that first networking meeting is admirable, it’s the follow up that really matters. Be sure to send a quick thank you email after your meeting, and don’t forget to reference the most impactful part of the conversation. That’s where most people will end it. But if you really want to get something out of the meeting, follow up a few months later. Sometimes, I’ll simply send the person a life update, or other times I’ll ask to grab coffee and catch up. The important thing is to keep the relationship going, especially if you clicked the first time. Definitely don’t pursue the relationship if it feels fake or forced, but if you think there’s something there, don’t let it fall flat. It’s keeping in touch that will make it all worth it.
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Jordan DeTar is the founder and chief writer of The Feminequity Factor, “a girl's guide to owning her life." Her personal blog focuses on embracing femininity, owning your life, and revolutionizing what it means to be a young, successful woman in today’s world.
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