When you hear the word “networking,” what is your immediate reaction? Are you energized by the prospect of meeting new people, or does the very notion send you into fits of panic? Would you characterize yourself as an active networker? Or, are you unsure of where to begin, concerned that you might be asking too much of others?
We hear how important networking is to the success of our careers, and yet, our visceral reaction to the very word is often negative. We decline to put in the effort, we fear reaching out to others, and we shudder at walking into a large gathering on our own.
But here’s the reality: People change jobs fairly often over the span of their working life—about every five years according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since it is rare for people to stay in the same job or at the same company for their entire careers, there is no question that networking is an essential professional tool, whether you are looking for a job now or down the road. With unemployment In America at approximately 7.9 percent, networking is a necessity—not a luxury. Not only is it a tool to expand your professional relationships, it also keeps your interviewing skills from getting rusty and increases your awareness of what is going on in your field.
And, surprise! … Networking can be extremely enjoyable and rewarding, especially if you reframe your definition of networking. For me, networking is about connecting with other people, establishing community, and deepening one’s sense of belonging. Networking is not just about finding a job or making a sale or gathering a collection of business cards; it is about establishing and building personal relationships for long-term, mutual benefit.
The good news is that everyone can network—but everyone’s networking style will be a little different. We all have the ability to build relationships, so that means that you have the capacity to become a master networker. Here are a few pointers to get you started:
Know Your Story. It may seem obvious, but go into networking scenarios armed with an arsenal of your own key stories—those that describe who you are, what you do, what you believe in and how you operate. Think ahead about the information you want to share and how you wish to be perceived.
Show Some Attitude. Decide that you are a great networker and you are! Though the idea of networking can be daunting, the rewards you reap from the experience will pay dividends. By going in with a confident, positive, optimistic disposition, ready to help and add value for others, you will have no trouble building a solid professional network. In fact, you may be surprised by how people will seek you out as a contact. People are almost never impressed with someone who exudes pessimism and negativity, so make a conscious effort to display a happy, positive attitude.
Create a Structure. Determine an approach that will work for you and commit to it. I like to plan my days around three key meetings—one in the morning, one at midday and one in the afternoon. I call my structure Coffee Lunch Coffee (also the name of my blog). This approach works for some; others have a different take. For example, you may decide that you prefer to schedule your networking meetings in the evenings after traditional office hours. Another difference may be that, rather than meeting your contacts at coffee shops or restaurants, you prefer to meet them either at their office or yours. It is absolutely appropriate—and important—that you alter the approach to find the process that makes the most sense for you based on your lifestyle and aspirations.
Set Goals. How many new people will you seek to develop relationships with each day, week, month or year? When I first started building my network, I aimed for 15 new or renewed connections each week. Now that my days are a bit fuller, I strive for five to 10 per week. What’s your magic number? It starts with just one. Who is the first person with whom you will connect?
Prepare. Think about people you already know you’d like to reconnect with and people you know of in the community you’d like to connect with for the first time. Consider companies you’d like to get to know better. Gather some information. Thanks to readily accessible tools such as company websites, LinkedIn profiles and other forms of social media, you can find plenty of information with minimal time and effort. By doing just a bit of research, you can capitalize on the time spent with your contacts and make your meetings more productive for both of you.
So, are you ready? Know your story, steel your attitude, establish a process, set a goal, prepare yourself and send an invitation to connect. Ready… set… network!
Alana Muller ’93 is president of Kauffman FastTrac, a global provider of training to aspiring and existing entrepreneurs. Muller is the author of Coffee Lunch Coffee: A Practical Field Guide for Master Networking and a companion blog, CoffeeLunchCoffee.com. She is a frequent lecturer and workshop facilitator on topics such as networking, entrepreneurship and women in business. She has been a contributor to The Huffington Post, Forbes.com, CNBC and various publications. Muller has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago, where she was the recipient of the Mike and Karen Herman Fellowship for Women in Entrepreneurship. She was recognized as a 2012 Influential Woman by KC Business magazine. Follow her on Twitter @alanamuller.