To start with, a confession – I’m a natural Networking Avoider.
I’m a friendly and sociable person but also somewhat introvert and get a bit overwhelmed with too much small talk and self-promotion – because that’s the best way to network, right?
There are so many buzz words that we use without questioning them – and networking is one of those. It calls to mind several images, most of them fairly cringe-inducing for someone like me. The classic one is the schmoozing with drink in hand that takes place after events, where both you and your new contact constantly scan the room for someone more interesting to talk to…
But in fact we all have and need networks, sometimes without even realising or naming them such. We all have people we turn to in times of trouble, former colleagues who still give us advice, fixers at work who always know how to get round problems. I think we get stuck when we think about networking as lots of short-term, one-off interactions with people we don’t know, where we seem only to be approaching them for self-interest and which causes us anxiety or embarrassment. This is the story I have heard many times from Thresholds mentees.
So if this is you, it’s time to reframe. Networking can be a long-term investment: it’s incredibly worthwhile to stay in touch with certain people and build a deeper connection, such as with a mentor, an advocate, an expert in your field, or a connector who loves nothing more than linking you with their interesting collection of contacts. Networking is of mutual benefit: it's a two-way process, the person you're seeking to network with can gain a lot from replaying their own story to you and hearing your questions. And networking is a great way to present your calm and proud self: see it as a way of helping rehearse yourself to someone else – we are all social animals and find our own kind of constant interest, so rest assured that you will be listened to...
I have certainly changed my approach to networking. The shift for me is to define the purpose: this helps me adjust networking in my mind from a vague self-promotion exercise into a useful conversation. There are many possible reasons for networking. At basic level, most of us like meeting and talking to new people. More specifically, we can seek career advice from people successful in our field; broaden our vista and have our eyes opened to very different career pathways and work experiences; and build our visibility in a particular community of interest.
My tips from my personal experience are:
- Define your purpose: in your own mind, be clear what you want to get out of the conversation, such as: specific information on how to follow up a career idea; general input from your contact on their life story; an informal chance to test out your pitch and personal brand; or their top tips for networking…
- Keep it short: in a social setting, be ready to have a brief chat and keep circulating. For a 121 session, 30 minutes is perfect, any more, and it eats into busy schedules (plus be aware of different personality types: I tend to feel drained after more than this length of animated discussion with someone I don’t know – you or your contact may be the same)
- Send a blurb in advance: where you have set up a 121, it will help your contact feel positive about how they can be useful to you if you frame yourself and what you want from them. I was put in touch with a friend of a friend who felt awkward that she didn’t have the “right” background to help me, so I reassured her that it was her very different career pathway I was interested in, nothing sector specific
- Learn your own style: it’s useful to work out if you want to maximise short connections OR build more sustained relationships OR a mix of both, and worth thinking what level of time and energy you have to keep in touch with people. It’s helpful to keep short notes before and after networking conversations to record key facts and follow-up actions, and reflect on what went well and what you’d do differently next time