Connections and Conversations
Building a Network that Works
Allison McWilliams :
One of the most important self-management practices, which is a hallmark of anyone with well-developed EQ, is that of building an effective network. In today's fast-paced, ever-changing, global economy, finding a job and building a career is as much about who you know as it is about what you know. Both research and practice demonstrate that you are better off developing networks of people who are willing to help you achieve your goals, than to rely on one person to do it all. Why? A diverse network expands your access to opportunities, broadens the voices and perspectives you are welcoming into your life, and diminishes the power that any one person may hold over you and your choices.
And, network-building is not just important for career development and progression. It's also critical as you go about the business of creating a life. An effective network is filled with both strong and weak ties, people who care about you and what happens to you, as well as people who will provide great connections and open doors and help you to reflect on the experiences you are having and what they may mean for your choices in the future. But how does one go about building an effective network? For many people, the idea of "networking" instills a feeling of panic. Not everyone enjoys the prospects of having to "work a room." The good news is that anyone - even the most introverted - can do this work with a bit of reframing, practice, patience, and persistence. Network-building, ultimately, is relationship-building. If you start from that perspective, and maintain a healthy curiosity about other people, then building your network becomes a process of developing intentional individual relationships with the people you encounter every day. And that is a skill that you will take with you, no matter where you go.
Over the next few months, try out these 10 tips for building an effective network:
Have a purpose or a goal. Spend a few minutes setting a goal or two for the next few months. You might want to identify one person to connect with per month. Or, you might want to identify two or three events that you will attend to broaden your connections. Be intentional about which individuals you want to connect with and why. Your goal should not be to meet everyone in the room (i.e., "working the room") but to identify three or four people with whom you can have a meaningful interaction.
Practice your "elevator pitch." Be able to answer the questions "Who are you?" and "What do you do?" and "What do you want to do?" in no more than a couple of sentences. The clearer that you are about what you are working towards, the more helpful that others can be in your achievement of those goals. You may not get asked these exact questions, but a little preparation will give you confidence to tell your story no matter how it is asked.
Be strategic about joining groups. Research the key professional associations you should join, either for your current or desired position or industry. Attend regional or national meetings and conferences that are sponsored by these groups. Get involved in your community through volunteer and other civic organizations. You don't have to (nor should you) join everything, but a few key organizations helps to build your resume and allows you to build intentional connections.
Volunteer. If the idea of approaching a room full of strangers gives you night sweats, seek out opportunities to volunteer at events. This puts you in the room in an official capacity, with something constructive to do (as opposed to just standing around), but still allows you to meet and mingle with those in the room.
Start with the people you know. Imagine reaching out to a total stranger, inviting them to lunch, and talking to them about their career path and interests. Now imagine doing the same thing with your best friend, parent, or mentor. Easier, right? Start with the people you know. Not only will this help you develop your network-building skills in a safe environment, you never know the contacts you will gain from talking to the people who are closest to you. (Trust me, your family members know people, too.)
Ask for curiosity conversations. These are also known as "informational interviews," but without the pressure of job-searching. Curiosity conversations are wholly based on learning about another person, their path, challenges, and successes. Be intentional about seeking out people to add to your network. Come prepared with five or six open-ended questions and stay in a place of curiosity. Don't forget to bring a copy of your resume (just in case) and to ask for recommendations of other people you should meet.
Listen more than you talk. Ask questions, and then truly listen to the answers. Resist the temptation to interrupt and talk over the other person. This is your opportunity to soak up valuable information, knowledge, and resources from this person who is willingly giving them to you. Respect them and their time by giving them your full attention.
Follow-through and follow-up. Send a note to those you have met, remind them of where you met, your interests, and most importantly, thank them for taking the time to speak with you. Put a note in your calendar to periodically check in with your contacts so that you will stay fresh in their minds. And, when someone offers to connect you with one of their contacts, follow through and follow up!
Don't be shy, don't be pushy. Don't be afraid to ask someone to talk about their career, interests, and passions. Most people will be honored to be asked! But, if someone turns you down, simply thank them for their time and move on. Some people are just too busy or not interested in helping another person with their career path. Let it go. The most important person to have in your network is the one who genuinely wants to help you.
Find a mentor (or two, or three). Not everyone in your network will be a mentor to you. This type of relationship requires a much greater investment of time and energy than most of your contacts will be able to provide. A mentor certainly can and should be in your network and can even help guide you as you develop your network. A mentor has a vested interest in you, your success, and your growth, and makes a commitment to see you through. As you do the work of intentional network-building, pay attention to those with whom you have rapport, and those who seem truly interested in your growth and success. Do the work to build those relationships over time.
Finally, it's worth remembering that no one will ever care about your career, your life, and your growth and development as much as you. It is up to you to take responsibility for your own path. If you want someone to be part of your network, remember that it is on YOU to make that happen. Don't expect other people to bring you with them. Make it your responsibility to bring them with you. Be a connector, and watch your network grow.
(Allison McWilliams, Ph.D., is Assistant Vice President of Mentoring and Alumni Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University).