The ability to network well can be a huge advantage in career development. Having a strategy and taking the time to build up long-term, mutually beneficial relationships are key to success.
When it comes to job hunting and career development, it would seem that the age-old adage of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ still holds true. According to a Wall Street Journal report in 2006, 94pc of successful job seekers claimed that networking had made all the difference for them in their searches.
There is a wide range of reasons for networking: everything from personal development to understanding what’s going on in the marketplace, and from researching the competition to forging friendships and extending social circles. It establishes contact between like-minded people whose experience and knowledge can help greatly in solving business problems and revealing career opportunities.
The ability to network doesn’t come naturally to everyone and the idea of attending networking events can be a cause of dread for some. “People think about networking as almost a dirty word,” says Krishna De, an engagement and executive development mentor specialising in social-media strategies. “The key thing to remember is that it is about building positive relationships. Networking is a long-term relationship rather than a short-term hit.”
It’s important to have a strategic plan before deciding which networks to be a part of. Consider where the best place might be to start and what you want to achieve out of that organisation. Find out where the people you want to get to know are meeting, and then get yourself an invitation. Most associations will allow potential members to try out an event or two before they need to make the commitment to join.
Perform a network audit
“Some people go to networking events hoping something will happen, but having a goal will make you more successful,” says Tricia Murphy, a strategic networking consultant who is informally known as the ‘Networking Queen’. “Perform a network audit – if you are looking for a new position, you should identify the people in your network who may help make your position stronger, or get you to that next step. You also need to know who is missing from your network and how you go about getting to know them.”
According to the experts, good networking is not about you; it’s always about the other person. A successful networker will ask questions and actively listen to what the other person has to say.
De believes that the skills to building these relationships can be learned and developed. “Being an active and engaged listener and genuinely interested in the other person are essential skills. Use good, open questions and offer useful suggestions – for example, a similar project you’ve just worked on or somebody you know who might be of value to them,” she adds.
What should you talk about at an initial meeting? “Them!” exclaims Murphy. “They will remember you as a great conversationalist. Remember to maintain eye contact – you’ll find at networking events that while someone is talking to you, their eyes are flickering around the room. Be present in the situation that you are part of.”
Of course, getting yourself remembered at networking events should be an equally important part of the plan, and remarkable input makes a strong impression. De offers some interesting pointers: “Be positive and engaging in a one-to-one conversation. Say something that adds value to a Q&A session.”
Being in an industry-related network is valuable if you want to become known in your particular sector and to get support from peers in your own area. However, networking contacts from different backgrounds are also beneficial in that they bring fresh ideas and a different perspective. “A diverse network seems to have the most impact,” says Murphy. “The golden rule of bringing people into your network is to have people with the same ethos as yourself, regardless of whether they are in the same industry or not. Be open-minded and guided by your goals, but not blinded by them.”
How ruthless should you be in developing relationships? “I’d rather look at it as being strategic and focused, than being ruthless,” De says, diplomatically. “Don’t hang around with people who are not positive. You might want to be ruthless about the time that you spend in a network and about how much you give to it. If you never show up or contribute to a network, it’s pointless being there.”
Murphy concurs: “Ireland is too small a country to be an aggressive networker. You’ll get a reputation and it can act against you. However, from time to time you will need to cull your network. If you have been a member of an organisation for five or six years, and it has become of no relevance to you now, cut it. Likewise for any people in your network who are draining you.”
Cement the relationship
A good follow-up cements the relationship, and it is recommended to accomplish this within three days. One suggestion is to send on a recommendation of a book or article that is relevant to your conversation; another is to write a personal note or card. “At the initial meeting, try to indicate to your new contact what is going to happen at your next one – eg if you are going to call or email – and follow it through, otherwise you are rejecting them,” Murphy advises.
A key move to cultivating successful relationships is to connect people with others who you think will benefit them. Murphy admits that her favourite phone call starts with: ‘Tricia, I’ve met someone who I really want you to meet.’
It is hugely important to keep giving, as long as it doesn’t turn into a one-way street. “Reciprocity is key. There are some people who constantly take, ie those who are always seeking information. People get fed up, tune out and stop answering their questions,” says De.
It’s good practice to inform the person who has helped you of the outcome of their help. You may think your networking is over, but your paths may cross again. “Where people fall down is when they say ‘I am not going to talk to that person because I can’t see them at this point in my life helping me out’,” says Murphy. “You also have to build towards the future.”