You have a networking event after work and you’re not sure if you really want to go. Will it really be worth your time? Won’t it be cheesy? If you skipped it, you could finish that project you’ve been working on…
I hear questions and excuses like these all the time, and have even asked them of myself on occasion. But 9 times out of 10, I’d say you should go for it. Here’s why.
The word networking conjures up negative connotations for many people. To them, it implies painfully forcing conversations, feigning interest in others, reaching out to strangers, and putting on a persona that is not natural. Who wants that?
But, I would say those things are not networking!
What if instead of defining networking as a stilted, uncomfortable, and unnatural business check-off, we reframe the entire concept as making connections, building communities, and seeking mutual interests?
Not only are social connections a key to well-being, they can also pay dividends in the workplace. I have personally benefited from my communities by finding work, hiring job candidates, and making friends.
Communities offer mutual benefits
When we think of connecting to people, we think of a community that helps others, listens, shares common interests, exchanges knowledge and information, and is empathic.
We are all part of multiple communities in our personal lives, including book groups, churches, neighborhoods, clubs, board advisories, or schools. At work, we might be a part of an organizational team, working on cross-functional projects, participating on task forces, or in a special interest group. Social media provides another set of communities, bridging topics of interest in both your personal and work lives.
Connecting to others is a key human need for healthy relationships and personal growth. Most humans are wired to help others, so think of participating in a community as having an opportunity to benefit from someone else’s knowledge. At the same time, you can contribute your experiences, acquaintances, information, or advice. Communities are all about reciprocity.
I have been fortunate enough to receive support and give value in the various communities that I’m a part of.
For example, I joined Hewlett Packard immediately out of college and spent over 20 years there. I was suddenly one of 20,000 who lost our jobs in December 2005 due to a company restructuring under a new CEO.
After the initial shock of realizing I would have to update my resume, find a new job, and start to interview, I discovered this was a gift in disguise since it meant I could try something new. I was always interested in teaching at the college level, so thought this was the right time to make a career change.
I didn’t know where to start my search, but I knew I would need help breaking into a completely new field.
I had done some guest lecturing at the University of Chicago, so knew a professor there. Several of my book group members worked at the University of Maryland. And a few colleagues had been lecturing at various universities. I contacted each of these people to let them know I was interested in moving from the business world into academia.
Almost everyone I called or emailed got back to me; some with good luck wishes, and others with names for people to contact for more information. One of these leads was a dean at the University of Maryland, and I was able to meet her and ultimately secure a position as an adjunct professor.
Because I have been so fortunate in my life, I like to “pass it on” whenever I can. Much of this occurs in the form of mentoring where I have been able to help people prepare for interviews, negotiate raises, and position themselves for promotions.
Some of these mentoring networks have been formal (e.g., SAP sponsored Business Women’s Network or the Samsung supported Women In Samsung Electronics group), and some are informal (e.g., when co-workers or alumni from my alma mater call for advice).
I have contributed to and benefitted from my networks by giving and receiving advice, sharing and finding opportunities, and connecting people.
How to make connections (Networking 101)
There are really only two simple steps to generating connections with others - first develop them, and then cultivate them. The one rule that crosses both of these steps is to be authentic. Not only will you not enjoy putting on a persona that is not true to you, others will see right through it as well.
How to build meaningful connections when networking
Some people love meeting new people and get energized by new situations. But for others, networking, connecting, and building a sense of community doesn’t come naturally. For this group of people, I encourage taking small steps. Perhaps you can try to meet two new people at your next business event.
Asking people about themselves is always a good conversation starter. Some questions could be about finding a personal connection - what is their favorite vacation spot, which books would they recommend, etc.
Other questions could be around finding out more about the workplace such as what is a recent work challenge they have overcome, or what they like best about working for your company.
I also advise connecting online with people you meet at work events, sales meetings, or conferences. Follow up with an introduction via LinkedIn, connect on Twitter, or reach out using whichever social media platform you prefer.
Make it a goal to connect to one or two people over social media each week. This will help build your digital community, which can offer benefits down the road from job hunting to finding experts.
How to nurture your connections and community
It’s important to nurture your contacts so you are not only contacting people when you need something or when there is a problem, to stay top of mind, and to keep your options constantly open. You’ll want to connect with your contacts regularly, personally, and with relevant information.
There are a few ways to do this, and it doesn’t always take a lot of time. Start by being thoughtful about being a giver. In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant suggests that you follow the “five minute favor guideline” in which you look for “short, high-impact ways of contributing to others, such as sharing a timely article or introducing two people who might be able to support each other’s goals.”
On social media, you can create groups or lists for people with shared interests. This way you can easily share relevant information to each group instead of sending every article you come across to your entire network.
Another way to stay in touch is to express appreciation, gratitude, and congratulations. Again with social media, it is easy to see when a colleague gets a new job or a new title. Send them a note so they know you’re thinking of them.
What are you waiting for?
It’s never too late to start building connections. Take the small steps above and before long you will be a part of a few vibrant communities. There are many ways to contribute to a community, and your actual participation will vary based on where you are in your personal and work life at any given moment.
Sometimes you will have the bandwidth to take on a new project, and other times you will be totally consumed with your daily responsibilities. It’s less important how you specifically contribute to the community at any point in time; and more important that you are a participant. As Rhett Power reminds us in one of his articles in Inc, “you get out of it what you put in.”
Now that you’ve been reminded how important it is to connect, who will you reach out to this week?