The purpose of professional networking is to gain information, increase your visibility in your field, and establish personal connections that will help you advance in your career. No matter how much you love your job, you should always be looking for ways to expand your networks because, ideally, your contacts will follow you from position to position. A strong network allows you to get advice from trusted sources, to keep your professional knowledge current, to find career opportunities, and to support the careers of others.
Look for Contacts Everywhere
Your network should have lots of variety; individuals from different companies, career levels, and professions can add a range of perspectives. Keeping in touch with your college friends who might be in different companies and industries is a great way to populate your network. Joining a professional association in your field and regularly attending its events is also a smart idea. Finally, investigate your company’s sponsored programs; many organizations provide opportunities for individuals to network within the company. Training events, visits from management, guest speakers, or various types of interest-based events can yield the same type of contacts as an external event.
Take One Step at a Time
Know that it takes time to authentically populate your network. But also know that each new contact is a step in the right direction. When I first got into educating people on twentysomething workplace issues, it was startling how helpful I found just one meeting of the Chicago chapter of the American Society for Training and Development. I walked out of the event with business cards for several potential clients and mentors. My network increased after only one event.
Before going to such an event, think about what you hope to get out of attending. Is it general knowledge? Is it a new contact in your field? Or perhaps you are looking for someone to provide input on one of your projects? Understand who the speakers will be at the event and how you might contact them or access their materials in advance of or after the event. Also, learn what other companies and individuals might be at the event. Prepare a few questions that you want to explore, and set a goal to answer them at the event. For example, if you want to do an informational interview—a thirty-minute conversation with an expert on a new development in your field—your goal may be to find someone at the event with that type of expertise.
Many experts are willing to speak and share their knowledge, but some may not be as willing. Don’t become discouraged. It may take a few attempts at building your network to make a personal connection. Once you have received an initial response and are moving forward with an interaction—whether it’s in person or via e-mail or phone—be friendly, respectful, and conscious of the contact’s time constraints. Confirm your contact’s available time and the topic you want to cover. If you have the opportunity to sit down with a contact in person, remember to make eye contact, smile, shake hands firmly, and exchange business cards. Ask thoughtful questions and listen carefully to the answers.
Follow Up and Return the Favor
If you are meeting over coffee or a meal, when the check comes, simply say to your contact, “I invited you here today, so this is my treat.” This, combined with a handwritten thank-you note, will make the best possible impression and leave the door open for future follow-up—which you should do, of course! If your contact gave you any advice or suggested a course of action, touch base every few months with an update on your progress. And since effective networking always involves give and take, think about ways you can help your contact in return.