You’ve recently begun your professional career, and you want to do the right things to get ahead in your field. Everything you read and hear is that networking is what it’s all about. Career consultants suggest that you try to make 3 to 5 new contacts each week. To most people, that’s an overwhelming task. It’s even more daunting if you aren’t especially outgoing or if you tend toward shyness. In some ways, it simply seems gratuitous, uncomfortable, even fawning. How do you go about networking? Can it be accomplished in ways that are appropriate, comfortable, time efficient, and effective?
The goal of networking is making connections. Just as important is maintaining or managing the connections you already have made. Often overlooked is how to best keep track of colleagues you have met or interacted with either personally or online.
If you are just beginning a new job, start by trying to meet as many co-workers as you can. Note their names and positions. Take time to look them up on the organization’s personnel chart and online. Look for points of similarity and things you might have in common. Tread carefully here, though. Your goal should be developing professional relationships. Friendships in the workplace can create some challenges, and can cause hurt feelings if you later find you aren’t as compatible as you initially thought.
Many professionals use a social networking site such as LinkedIn to make and manage connections. If you don’t have a profile on LinkedIn, make it a goal this year to establish one and keep it up to date. Look at the profiles of mentors or colleagues you admire. Take the time to make yours complete, attractive, and business-like. Get rid of anything that shouts “just starting professional career.” This may include items such as your college GPA, and activities like intramural sports or informal positions in clubs or sororities, or that contest you won in high school.
Each week, set aside a little time to review established or potential contacts on LinkedIn or on other online venues. Before you attend a meeting, check the profiles, interests, and accomplishments of colleagues who will be there, too. Frequently, you will find something—a new award, or a recent publication—that you can use as a conversation starter.
If you are attending a conference or large gathering, look at the attendee and presenter list in advance. Have you met any of them before? If so, make it a priority to speak with them again and to mention your previous meeting. Don’t assume they will recognize you. Instead, make it easy for them by stating when and where you met and then mention something about their presentation or accomplishment. Always hand them a business card. (Yes, many of the professionals you want to meet still use business cards.) If you have a specific request, like a copy of their power point presentation, write your request on your card.
Asking to take a photo with a speaker, awardee, or other renowned person can go either way. Unless others are doing it, and the individual seems comfortable and unhurried, forgo your request. It is especially awkward if you are turned down.
Another way to begin networking is to follow articles in journals or trade magazines and to take advantage of various twitter feeds. Compile a list of individuals in your field that you would like to meet and make it a habit to regularly follow them online. Eventually, your paths will cross or you will find an opportunity to send an email or congratulatory note.
Another way to network is to join a community group or become a volunteer for a good cause. Spending a weekend or two helping to build a house for a homeless family, working at a soup kitchen over Thanksgiving, or participating in a fundraising sports activity can help you meet like-minded professional colleagues. Again, do your homework and find out who serves on the event planning committee or Board of Directors. Networking opportunities aren’t limited to the office. In addition to the satisfaction you get from helping others, volunteer activities are a positive addition to your online profile.
The start of a new year is a good time to begin, or increase, your professional network. Set some realistic goals for yourself—meeting one new colleague each week, looking up people attending certain meetings, writing a note to a professor or colleague who was helpful, or finding a community activity or charity that interests you. When the end of the year rolls around, you should find that your network has expanded in direct proportion to your efforts.
As you become more and more established in your field, networking becomes easier. First of all, you have more to bring to the exchange. You know more and more people, and more people will want to know you. It will still require time and attention, but at some point, you will find that your initial networking pays off in career dividends.