Networking is a crucial pillar to building a successful career, but it often gets a bad rep as being this smarmy, glad-handing way of getting new business. Fear and shyness can cripple some people to the point that networking feels like a terrible chore and is avoided at all costs.
Learning this important soft skill can mean the difference between you reaching your career goals or staying in the same place the rest of your career.
Let’s talk about some ways to network correctly and how to build your sphere of influence like a pro.
Networking is about building relationships
First of all, networking is not about putting on a cheesy smile, slipping your business card into a handshake, exchanging a few surface greetings, and then hoping that person decides they want to do business with you. Networking is about building relationships and getting to know people.
That person you’re sitting next to on a plane or at a conference could be your next client, boss, or coworker. Ask them questions and take time to listen to their answers. Make your interaction about genuinely getting to know them. When you think of networking as a way of getting to know someone, it can help take off the pressure of feeling like you have to perform. In your mind, try replacing the word “networking” with “connecting” to help get you in the right mindset. It’s about connecting with others.
Quality over quantity
Effective networking isn’t so much about how many people you know as it is about what you do with the relationships you have. Being connected to hundreds of strangers through social media could never help you in the way that fifty meaningful relationships can. It takes time to meet people, establish trust, and build strong relationships. Take time to connect with people inside and outside your company, throughout all levels. Connect in all directions, not just up.
Networking is not a conduit for favors
While the skill of networking will help you build your career, it should not be thought of only as a way to ask for random favors or job opportunities. That may be one of the reasons you’ve never liked networking – you dread that random favor that may be asked of you by some stranger you just exchanged business cards with yesterday. That is networking done wrong.
No one should use networking as a way of finding people who can do favors for them. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Be kind, courteous, and respectful.
Take care of your sphere of influence
One of the most important things you can do when it comes to networking is to not think about what your contacts can do for you, but think about what you can do for your contacts. This goes along with treating others the way you would want to be treated. As psychotherapist Amy Morin wrote in Forbes, “Think about what you have to offer, not just what you want to gain. If you only view networking as a self-serving promotional tool, you’re likely to feel a little sleazy. Before you approach your next networking opportunity, think about what you can give, not just what you want to gain.”
Maybe you can introduce them to a potential client, or connect them to a thought leader they’ve been dying to meet. You might know someone who knows someone who can help her with a project she is working on.
If you offer to help someone, make sure you follow through on your promise. Doing so not only helps the other person, but it also protects your own reputation. Don’t say something that sounds nice at the moment, but you didn’t really mean it. If you don’t follow through for that new connection, it could do some damage to your reputation as someone who can’t be trusted. Word could get around and it could cause some of your other contacts to cut ties with you as well. Keep yourself in check and be mindful that your actions are a reflection of you, and, at times, the company you work for.
Successful professionals see networking opportunities just about everywhere, anytime. Networking is also one of business’s great equalizers. No matter your background, job title, or gender, networking provides opportunities to meet new people who can influence your career in important ways.