Many people never experience the full power of networking because they look at it as a point, not a circle.
Let me explain…
The “Point” view of networking tends toward these type of attitudes about and corresponding actions related to networking:
- Networking is an event. Therefore I should attend as many functions and conferences as possible.
- Networking is getting-oriented. Therefore I should only follow up with people when I need something.
- Networking is a phase. Therefore I should only network when I’m looking for a job or in some other transition.
But I contend that you should actually think of networking as a circular set of actions that leads to hopefully life-long, mutually beneficial relationships.
To help you integrate this approach into your life, I’ve laid out what I see as the four stages of networking and provided some practical tips for implementing each one. But before we begin, here are two important principles:
Principle #1: Routine is key. If you don’t naturally make connections with new people, you need to set up some type of routine to make this happen on a regular basis. That could be something as small as spending 10 minutes on LinkedIn every Friday afternoon or as big as joining the leadership team in a professional organization. The key is that you want to have regular prompts to spend time with new people.
Principle #2: Pace yourself. Unless you are in a field like sales or business development, meeting new people will not always be your highest priority. It’s completely reasonable to set a limit for yourself and to spread out meetings over the proper amount of time. For instance, you may decide that you will have 1 to 2 phone conversations with new contacts each week and that you will attend one event each month.
Now let’s begin to plot out the circle…
Stage One: Finding New Contacts
When you already feel time crunched, it can seem really overwhelming to think about meeting new people. How can you expand your network when you can barely keep up with the professionals you already know? But new connections are the life blood of your career that can open up new worlds of opportunity to you so try these strategies:
- Start by contacting people you already know or who you had promised to follow up with in the past. Although you may feel a bit embarrassed about the amount of time that has gone by, most people will be happy to hear from you and rekindle the connection.
- Ask for introductions from others. Cool people generally know cool people. It’s completely acceptable to ask if someone might be willing to write a quick e-mail introduction that could lead to you setting up a phone conversation or face-to-face meeting.
- Use social media strategically. Social media typically doesn’t lead to deep connections with people, but when used strategically, it can be incredibly helpful in facilitating an initial introduction. One of my friends, Shama Hyder Kabani, recently released her 2012 edition of “the zen of social media marketing” that contains incredibly practical advice on how to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and other social media tools for business. If you’re looking for step-by-step practical advice, I recommend that you check it out.
- Go to events you enjoy. These could include traditional networking events with the chamber of commerce or a professional association, but could also include MeetUp.com groups, sports clubs, knitting circles or any number of places where you can interact with new people who you would like to get to know better. Intrinsically enjoying the activity will increase your motivation for regular attendance and make you happier during the event.
Stage Two: Connecting With People
It’s not enough to just make contact with new people. You want to go deeper and make a connection that will lead to a lasting (hopefully positive) impression. I’m amazed at how a single meaningful interaction has lead to people reaching out to me months or even years later about business opportunities.
- Know your lines. If you can’t clearly articulate who you are and what you do relatively concisely, it may be intimidating for you to reach out to new people, particularly at a business networking event because you are afraid they might ask you the inevitable, “What do you do?” Also, you limit people’s ability to think of people or resources to share with you. It’s not necessary to have a super formal speech, but you should have a short, clear answer to this question that feels comfortable to you.
- Talk to new people when you see them. This may seem beyond obvious, but as a general role, we like to stick to our comfort zones. That means that even at networking events our natural inclination is to only spend time with the people we already know or worse yet to whip out or mobile devices on breaks. When you’re out and about–at a restaurant, at a conference, at a networking event–consider saying, “Hello,” to the people around you. Not all of your efforts may lead to good connections, but you could have some big breakthroughs for relatively little effort.
- Follow up in 24 hours. Ask for contact info and then use it. I make it a personal goal to follow up on anything that I said I would do within 24 hours of meeting someone. This helps me to take advantage of the benefits from the connection and to keep the professional relationship moving forward.
- Plan in one-on-one time. Talking to someone for 3 minutes as you wait in line for food rarely leads to a pay off. But scheduling a phone call or a lunch meeting for even 30 minutes can have a huge return on investment. It’s completely reasonable to plan these one-on-one meetings even a month out from when you meet. But the important point is that you get it on the calendar so that you’ll be prompted to make it a priority.
Stage Three: Keeping In Touch
You don’t need to keep in touch with everyone. It’s OK to sort through business cards at the end of a networking event and to decide who to follow up with for a single discussion or for more ongoing connection. You also don’t need to keep in touch with everyone on the same frequency. It’s good to have a few people that you connect with more regularly, but it’s fine to cultivate other relationships on a 3-, 6- or 12-month basis.
- Passively stay in touch by adding individuals as social media contacts and sharing news and reading updates on a regular basis. Even if you don’t own a business, you may want to consider sending out a mass e-mail every 6 months to a year to past employers, old school friends or people who you met at conferences. Add them immediately to a group e-mail list (once you have their permission of course!). Then put a reminder to send the e-mail in your calendar and/or have it correspond with a memory cue like the anniversary of your business or January 1 or your birthday.
- Schedule a recurring phone call or lunch meeting with people you want to connect with more often so that spending time with them is naturally built into your schedule. If a recurring event won’t work, decide on your next meeting day and time at the end of each time you have together.
- If you’re working on a particular type of project where you may need help or advice in the future, set up a place where you collect names and notes about individuals who could assist with that topic. I keep my list in a simple “People to Help with Book” Word document, but you can keep yours in any searchable note taking or contacts tool.
- When people tell you to let them know when you’re in their area, add them to a list of people in a particular city or put a searchable location note or tag on their profile in your contact management system. That way when you plan a trip, you can quickly and easily know who you could potentially visit.
Stage Four: Introducing People to Others
The final element of the circle that makes sure everything keeps turning properly involves you taking the initiative to introduce people to others. As you do so, you increase goodwill, become a trusted resource for good connections, and generally make the world a better place.
- Make the question: Is there anything I can do to help you? a standard part of your networking conversation protocol. Then if someone mentions that they’re trying to complete a certain task or meet a certain kind of person, go through your contacts to see if you can help them with a connection.
- Welcome people at networking events. If you’ve already been at a networking event a couple of times, you can offer a warm welcome to new people to the group. This can be as simple as making an opening in your circle so someone hanging out in the fringes can join in the discussion or purposefully connecting people who you think might have something in common.
- Organize your own events. When you throw the party, you can invite all of the people who you think might enjoy knowing one another. For a simple get together, you can invite people to a coffee shop, bookstore, restaurant with a patio, or an outdoor community gathering.
Then go back to start and repeat. As Ben Stein quips, “Personal relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, all achievement in real life grows,” so transform your networking strategy from a point that fades away to a circle that keeps gaining momentum throughout your career.
To your brilliance!
About Real Life E®
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time management life coach who empowers clients around the world to accomplish more with peace and confidence. For more brilliant time strategies, check out www.ScheduleMakeover.com.
Elizabeth has appeared in Inc magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes and on NBC and is a monthly contributor to the99Percent.com blog on productivity for creative professionals. She was selected as one of the Top 25 Amazing Women of 2010 by Stiletto Woman and as a member of the Young Entrepreneurs Council featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Mashable, and many other media outlets.
Elizabeth’s time coaching clients have the opportunity to go through her exclusive Schedule Makeover™ life transformation process through phone coaching and custom action guides or in-person training.