I’m not a natural networker. I love people, talking to people and – especially – helping people, but I don’t go out of my way to make contact with new people – even when it would help me – and I definitely feel nervous before meeting people for the first time. Let alone before giving a presentation!
You might think that makes me completely unqualified to talk about networking for your career. But you would be wrong. It’s because it felt so unnatural to me, I’ve had to think about how to do it successfully very carefully. After all, for someone who finds the whole process emotionally draining, the last thing I want to do is waste time on things that don’t work. And I can tell you now, I know first-hand plenty of things that don’t work!
For all those who abhor “selling themselves” the good thing is, networking is not about selling anything. At least, not directly.
When people ask me – “what does a ’networking plan’ actually mean?” I talk to them about what they currently do, ask questions and make some small suggestions that I think will give them better results. Generally this all falls into 2 broad categories: what you could do more of (lots of things here); and what to avoid (a handful of generally unhelpful things – many of which I’ve done myself).
Do more of this
- Go right back to the start.
Before you write that email, pick up the phone – make sure you do this first. What is your purpose? Why are you doing what you’re doing? I’ll give you a real(ish) example: say you work in human resources. You like the work, but you’re becoming more and more interested in leadership development. You may have even started studying leadership or are reading books about the subject. But your professional network in that area isn’t strong and you’d like to meet some like-minded people who do it for a living. Imagine you approach someone who does leadership development for a living and you ask them for advice. Be prepared for this question: why do you want to get into this field? You need to be clear on that, otherwise you’re wasting your time. I hate the phrase ‘elevator pitch’ – if you know why you’re doing something, you don’t need an artificial-sounding speech. Go back to the start – why?
- Think about them.
If someone came to me right now and said, I want to sell you a new accounting system, I would ignore them. If they said, I want to sell you a sales and marketing program, I wouldn’t even reply. But if they approached me and said, I want to get your advice – now they have my attention. I love helping people, and I can’t resist helping someone, often people I don’t know. No one else is me of course so what this means is think about what’s going to interest the person you’d like to talk to, not what you’re interested in. That can come later, after you have established the relationship.
- Focus on your “best bets”.
In my experience, the most likely people to respond to you when networking are those who have at least 2-3 connections with you. They are people who might be in the same or a similar field, have a similar educational background to you, are interested in the same causes and might know some people in common. The more of these the better. Let’s say I would like to be an adviser in the office of a Member of Parliament. One of my tactics might be networking with people who currently have that role or a similar role. Let’s say you narrow down on 10 possible people you could contact. People who work with politicians are likely to be looking for clues about your political affiliation. Not just whether you are a member of a particular party, but what proof is there that you will be able to stay the course and keep to your values even if under pressure. So be clear on your own affiliation and seek out those who are interested in similar things. See if you know anyone in common. Choose people who feel familiar to you – use your intuition. And when crafting the approach, make it personal and warm. If you do these things, people will respond more often than not.
Do less of this
- Using a standard approach.
If you’ve got a standard letter or email that you plan to send to new contacts, throw it out. It will rarely work, which means you need to send it to lots of people, and many of those you send it to will be confused or even irritated about getting it. And even if it does work, it’s unlikely to be a good start to the relationship – the person responding might just be curious, bored or even feel an obligation to reply. There won’t be much emotional attachment there and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to help each other out. Far better to get clear on your purpose, work out a small list of people who you think can help you, and approach them with something personalised for them that also helps them. After all, there are probably only a handful of core contacts that will be really useful to you in your career.
- Be pushy in the first contact.
Don’t request a meeting with someone right at the outset. If you are planning on sending a note, email etc, my recommendation is not to ask for a meeting straight out – (it can be so tempting!) The reason is that without really knowing you, most people just won’t have enough trust in you to agree to meet. And unless it’s a very good proposition for them, it won’t be clear they will get something of value out of it – and it will be too late after the meeting you to back out of the relationship. In short it’s too risky for most. Rather than say that explicitly, a lot of people will make an excuse or keep you hanging out indefinitely for a suitable date and time. So by all means, ask to meet, but make sure you’ve worked on a solid connection and have something genuine to discuss.
I hope the above gives you confidence that you can make networking work for you. And don’t forget, have fun. There is nothing like the thrill of uncovering a new opportunity through your own networking efforts!
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