Networking is one of the most powerful things you can do to fast-forward your career. However, the idea of reaching out to strangers doesn’t always come naturally.
But we really shouldn’t have anything to fear from it, it’s simply about making connections – and you’ll probably find you’re already networking without even knowing it.
If you’ve ever recommended a friend’s business or skills to another friend, you’ll understand the power of networking. The idea’s simple: people prefer to do business with people they know rather than with total strangers.
Even if the person in question isn’t actually someone you know directly but so and sos brother’s friend who they went to primary school with, there’s an inherent sense of trust about these connections that you can’t get with strangers. Done well, networking can lead to new business or insider knowledge that could really help you in your job.
The tools of the trade
Industry conferences, workshops and events are the major tools of the trade that will lead you directly to the people you want to know. Networking events are well worth investing your time in, but remember that you can network anywhere and with anyone.
Don’t just limit yourself to those in your sector, connections breed connections so you never know where a chance meeting will lead. Network in the office canteen, with the lady standing next to you at your weekly gym class or with the guy sat by you on the plane: chatting with strangers often turns to talking about what you do, and you never know what may come of a simple conversation about the weather.
The internet opens the door to the global community, too, so there’s really no limit to networking opportunities. Nothing beats face-to-face contact, but the ever-expanding number of websites and social media sites are making networking easier than ever. Meetup.com is a useful resource where the online networking world meets the offline world. The idea is to find like-minded people and groups on the website and meet in real life to chat and share ideas.
You've found the contacts, now what?
OK, so you’ve got a few business cards and some email addresses. What next? Maintaining relationships with new contacts is crucial to smart networking. You can’t expect a contact to remember you, or to ask a favour of a guy you met five years ago at a conference. However, if you’ve actively maintained that relationship with regular follow ups – the occasional email, the odd catch up coffee here and there – you’ll probably be friends now, so you can call up a favour when you need to, and vice versa. Make sure you don’t fall at the first hurdle and undo all your hard work after a networking event: follow up initial contacts with an email or if appropriate, an invitation to coffee or lunch.
Remember that networking is a two-way affair, so give back where you can by sharing news you think your contact would be interested in, any business you can throw their way or contacts they may find useful.
Learn to love it
Practice makes perfect when it comes to savvy networking, but if you find the whole thing a bit intimidating, start small. Talk to people in the kitchen while you’re making a cuppa at work. Be more active around the office – attend lunchtime workshops and strike up conversations with people you haven’t met.
When you’ve done the local approach, branch out and attend industry events and workshops, then start to build your online network and get your name known. Smart networking doesn’t have to take up a lot of effort, but with the right approach, it can really take you places.