Learning how to network effectively is a powerful tool and can provide a range of benefits, including the exchange of knowledge, resources and ideas that can take your career to the next level while fostering friendships and professional relationships along the way.
Networking is about relationship building and comes in many forms: meeting people one-on-one, attending conferences, social outings, neighborhood events, your kid’s sports, or connecting through social media outlets.
Everyone has the opportunity to expand their network if you’re interacting with other people. However, for many people networking evokes uncomfortable memories of walking into a room full of unfamiliar faces.
Where to Start
Early in my career, I remember being asked to network for our firm at an upcoming conference that was attended by educational leaders from all over the state. All I could think was that I was way out of my league and comfort zone. How would I strike up conversations with complete strangers that I felt inferior to? After all, not only was I just learning the ins and outs of the AE industry, I am also what one would consider a social introvert.
I do fine at social events if I am not the center of attention. I also prefer one-on-one communication and I am especially not a fan at making small talk in group situations. So, what would I say or talk about—how would I strike up a conversation.
Don’t underestimate the value of making connections early in your career.
I suspect that many young professionals as well as folks that are generally shy, struggle at these types of events. Everyone puts on a smile, wanders aimlessly around the room looking for someone they feel comfortable enough to extend a hand shake for an introduction. Inside, and for many like me, some of us feel awkward, uncomfortable engaging in conversations, and unsure where to start.
Finding the Common Ground
What I realized was that in order to connect with the attendees, I had to find a common conversational opener that I was comfortable with.
When approaching people, I didn’t start off by introducing the firm or being sales pitchy. Instead, I struck up conversations by commenting on things I knew. For example, one school superintendent was from a neighboring county in the Northern Neck where I grew up. This I could connect with.
We realized not only did we have common likes, we had common acquaintances.
We talked about our love of the bay and experiences growing up in the region. The conversation became comfortable and soon spiraled.
We realized not only did we have common likes, we had common acquaintances (both personal and professional). I like to call it what has been phrased as the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” which suggest that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart.
Value of Making Connections Early in Your Career
Don’t underestimate the value of making connections early in your career, these relationships are vital for the span of your professional career.
How many years into my career, a lot of my colleagues (fellow marketers, architects, engineers) that were also new to their careers when I started in this industry, are now principals or key leaders at their respective firms. Remember the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. Chances are one of them have an existing relationship with a target client or knows someone that does.
Remember to look for the common ground you have with the other person.
Having these established connections makes it more comfortable reaching out to tap into their knowledge to not only help secure business opportunities, but to exchange ideas and best practices, and even new career opportunities.
Developing and Maintaining Professional Networks
Networking does takes work because it requires each of us to step out on a limb—to introduce ourselves, and get a conversation started. Don’t worry if sticking out your hand to introduce yourself feels unnatural at first. By shaking off the nerves and stepping out of your comfort zone, you’re not only building relationships, but social skills and self-confidence.
Remember to look for the common ground you have with the other person. You may need to ask questions to find one, but once you have one, you can network with confidence and start building and maintaining long lasting relationships.
You can’t just build the relationships; you need to nurture them.
Remember, too, that you can’t just build the relationships; you need to nurture them by patiently, consistently and regularly following up with your contacts so that you can transform them into connections and then relationships.
Whether it’s an email sharing an article of interest, chit-chat at a conference, sending a quick note inquiring how they’re doing or how a project is progressing, or even meeting up at a weekly happy hour/networking event—connect and reconnect.