If there is one thing I learned during childhood and my teens, it is how important good friends are. Then, during education and throughout my career, I learned in addition to how important a good network is; not only in respect to the many social contacts but also to opportunities that may arise through the network, for example, a job posting at the company you always wanted to work for. Many job postings nowadays are not even publicly advertised, as they are being filled through existing networks of friends, co-workers, ex co-workers, family, etc.
If there is one thing I did not learn during childhood, it’s how to be a great networker; I had to acquire all the skills during my adulthood. Nevertheless, from what I have learned I believe everyone can be a great networker, no matter whether they have experience or not, whether it involves a personal network or a professional network.
I have written below five basic considerations, which are the result of my own experience. You do not have to follow these, and as I mentioned these are some really basic considerations, something to keep in the back of your head when meeting new people; real professional networking goes far beyond these five steps.
1. Be open to meeting new people
When I did not know anything about networking, I was quite skeptical when meeting new people. I tended to keep my distance, waiting to get some more insights into their motivations. I felt much more comfortable in my old group of friends and acquaintances than I did when meeting new people. When I did meet new people, it was usually via the friends and family and friends I already have, and usually, I tended to think of them as their friends, not mine.
When I went abroad for my studies, I recognized how important it is to be open to meeting new people, since I didn’t know anybody in the new, big city. I started to open up, and escape my old habits. While I was doing that, I started to notice how closed other people often are when it comes to meeting new people and building personal relationships.
The best way for me to start being more open was to engage in small talk with just about anyone: the waitress at the bar, the people at university, my co-workers at work, and sometimes even some complete strangers on the bus. This has literally replaced my old habits with a set of new habits, being an open personality, enjoying meeting new people with the most different backgrounds and stories. Often the conversation just stays as it is, but sometimes personal contact details are exchanged.
2. Focus on the relationship, not the outcome
For many people, networking does not have the best possible image; it has the image of meeting people for the purpose of wanting favors from them. Although I have met quite some ‘networkers’, who do exactly that, their networking attempts will usually result in a very superficial network with little meaning.
A very powerful mindset is to focus on the relationship, rather than the outcome. By building relationships, I mean being in regular contact with that person, and really focus on getting to know each other. Depending on the type of contact, you may want to go for a drink or meet up regularly if you are working on a more personal network, or you might keep a bit more distance if you are building a network with customers, business partners, or generally work-related. Nevertheless, the relationship will need to be worked on from the moment of meeting that person, and the right mindset focuses on intensifying that relationship continuously.
Focusing on the relationship does not mean you can not ask or give favors; it simply means that this is not where you want the focus to be; people might sense that there is something strange about the situation of meeting you.
3. Networking is an imbalance of giving and taking
Family members, friends, and members of a network do favors for each other. That’s what they are for, and that is what makes the connection with another person special. Once a relationship exists, it is perfectly normal to ask someone for a favor, or for someone coming to you for a favor.
Some people I know keep a journal of all favors they had given or received… I am not a big favor of that. To me, it does not matter that I have done two favors to someone and have not received anything back. In my opinion, there is always a fine imbalance between giving and taking. I am always prepared to give, as long as the imbalance does not become too big. People, who are only our for a profit, have lost nothing in my network.
I have to note, that favor does not always have to occur free of charge. A friend of mine, for example, is a lawyer. Once I had asked him to look into a topic for me, that he is specialized in. Of course, I paid him, although he did give me a small discount; in the end, he is putting time and effort into my request, and I honestly believe that it should be rewarded in one way or the other.
4. Be present
By being present, I basically mean that people notice you, and are invited to chat with you. It does not matter whether I am at a party, a networking event, or a party, I try to show presence as much as I can.
For example, I might talk with one person for 20 minutes and agree with him we should stay in touch for an after-work drink some time… then I go to another place or room, and initiate a conversation with other people. I do not want to jump from one conversation to the other as if it were speed dating but also do I not want to cling to the known and comfortable.
When I just started with networking, I needed at least a few minutes to explain to someone what I do for a living, and what I had done in the past… and I wasn’t doing it effectively either. I recognized, that self-marketing was extremely important when building a network if I wanted others to really get to know me and my strengths within a short period of time.
Because else why should someone within my network offer me a job if that person does not know my strengths and what I am all about? This is an important point to think about: how can I communicate what I do and my strengths in the shortest possible time?
Networking truly covers much more than only a few points mentioned above, but these few steps have helped me tremendously.