If you’ve ever gone to a networking event, only to hug the wall for the full 2 hours, letting go only to grab a plate of food, or if you’re lucky, when someone you know shows up, then you and I were in the same boat, friend.
I think a lot of people (including my past self) have a few misconceptions about networking that negatively impact their ability to build new, meaningful, mutually-beneficial relationships.
A few years ago I did my MBA and couldn’t stand going to any of those events. I shared that with a professor of mine (she taught Power & Influence, how cool is that?!), I told her how sleezy I felt, like a used car salesman, and she called me out! She asked, how is it that I hated networking if in my first year I got voted in by 1,000+ students as president of student government? That’s the moment it hit me, a network isn’t strictly the people you meet at networking or recruiting events for the purpose of getting a job. It’s everyone you’ve ever met, from your neighbor to the new dentist you went to last week, it’s every single person that you’re in contact with. I don’t know about you, but that concept blew my mind!
Once I recognized what a network really is, I also realized that what I had been doing wasn’t networking, it was actively looking for a job (out of necessity might I add!), those two things should not be confused as the same. The value of a network is in, sure, sometimes finding a great job, but it’s also in finding mentorship, friendship, business partners, and valuable long-term relationships. If you only think of building a network as a way to get to your next short-term goal, you aren’t going to enjoy or succeed in this process.
Finally, and in my opinion, the most important mental shift I made was recognizing that I had value to add in these relationships. Even if you’re a young student, who hasn’t started their career yet, you can add value. I know it might be tough to think you can add value to a CEO of a fortune 500 company, but trust me, you can; you won’t always know how, but have confidence that it will reveal itself in your conversations over time. Maybe they were looking for someone to mentor and you're a sponge when it comes to advice, or maybe in a few years you're in a position to help them (fun story, I once met someone that was incredibly helpful, he gave me a lot of career advice that got me a great job, a year later at that same company, they were hiring for a president and I was able to get him an interview!), you have to be open to and believe in serendipitous outcomes.
If you start to make these mental shifts, you’ll begin to naturally love meeting new people as you now see the larger possibilities. But to capture the true value of a strong network, you have to be a bit more strategic. Build out a plan for what you want long term, write out your goals, and be specific about what you want this network for. For example, when I graduated from my MBA, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I connected with anyone that had a cool job title (yups, that’s all I went by!). I learned so much from those conversations, it led to a lot of self reflection that ultimately guided me to switching careers from CPG into tech.
Looking back now, my only regret is not starting earlier. If you're new to this and slowly working on making that mental shift, here are a few tips to start off strong:
1. ALWAYS write a note when adding someone on LinkedIn
If you don’t know them, it should be about who you are and why you want to speak to them, the more specific the better. Eg. “Hi Faye, I’m a student at XX University and I’m curious about your role in tech, I’m not quite sure what a Head of Ops does daily, I’d love to chat and learn all about it. Would you be open to grabbing a coffee sometime?” If you do know them, it should be a short “great meeting you yesterday at XX”. This will come in SO handy when you need to reach out to them again and can’t remember where you met.
2. If you’re not sure what to talk about when you first start out, here’s a basic outline:
- Talk about your background (60 secs) and what you're looking to accomplish (break into tech, discover if this industry is right for you, etc.)
- Ask about their background and how they got to this current role
- Ask about what they do day-to-day
- Ask if they like what they do and why/ why not.
- Ask if they have any advice for someone in your shoes (people love giving advice)
- Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them (if you feel comfortable)
- Tell them you’ll keep in touch (and make sure you do that)
3. Keep a list of people you’ve spoken to
I use Google Sheets to track my relationships, but you can use any preferred system. Track their names, titles, company, contact info, a bit about their background, what they need: are they hiring? Are they looking to meet someone with a specific expertise, what they enjoy (useful for sending articles to in the future), and most importantly the day you met them and when you should follow up (maybe you told them you’ll reach out in 3 months or update them when you land a job?)
4. Don’t get down after one bad conversation
From my experience, you’ll meet 3 types of people: the downers (these people will most likely not reply to you, or if they do, they won’t be that helpful at all), the average joe’s (these people don’t mind talking to you, but they won’t help unless you have a very specific ask that will take them less than 5 minutes to complete), and the shining stars (these are the people you meet who make you feel invincible after a single conversation, they will try to help you as much as they can and love doing it for nothing in return, everyone should try to be this person!) Meeting a shining star is worth having to go through 20 downers!
As with everything, the more you practice the better you’ll get. I’m sure you’ll be a pro in no time!