Things I DIDN’T Learn in College: Part 1 – Networking

NetworkWant to learn how to network, but aren’t sure where to begin? Here are some tips that will help you take the needed steps to become a networking machine. Interestingly, though networking is touted as an important skill to help you get ahead in life, it wasn’t taught at any college I attended (I went to three from undergraduate school through graduate school). Perhaps others have different experiences at different schools and colleges. If that is YOU, please leave a comment about the school you attended and a summary of what you learned from your networking course there.

If you’re not the networking type, I have a great suggestion for you later in this article.

What you’ll need:

  • Business cards and a business card holder.
  • A smile
  • A good, firm handshake

Really, that’s just about all you need to network other than desire and willingness to learn. It doesn’t matter why you’re trying to network, whether to help you land a better position, find a babysitter, make friends in a new town, or learn local customs.

Steps to take:

Remember that networking is an investment in relationships that will pay off in the future and not just in a monetary way. Though some would appear to be natural at it, networking is a learned skill and it starts by staying in touch. It’s impossible to network with someone if you don’t call, email, or at least write them every once in a while. Make it a habit to consistently stay in touch with people you like and respect even if there isn’t anything they can do for you at the moment. By doing so, you are planting seeds that can grow into mutual respect and the willingness to help each other for no other reason than because you have spoken once per month for the last two years. If you suddenly start trying to network because you’ve lost your job, you’ll find that you come across as desperate (it’s because you are). No one likes dealing with desperate networking wannabes.

I have a lot of catching up to do with former co-workers and classmates myself, but I have continued some relationships for years just because a) I like these people, and b) you never know when you’ll need a friend to call upon. Who do you need to call or email today?

Treat people well today. You never know where they or you will end up. I know of one person who worked with a very sharp individual at a Fortune 50 firm. That individual rose through the ranks to become the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Having established a relationship when he wasn’t in the top slot has paid dividends later.

Personally, I try to treat everyone well and I think most people would put themselves in that category. One thing that I’ve been told by subordinates is that they hope they never lose me as a boss. One even offered to move 600 miles to come be with me in a new position I had taken. I take a lot of pride in those accomplishments.

Learn to talk to people you don’t even know. Be that person who is first to break the ice. Talk with anyone and everyone. People in line at the market, people you meet at business functions, people you meet at weddings or parties, people you sit next to on an airplane all are potential sources of networking. You never know who you’ll meet that may be able to help you or that you may be able to help.

I love to talk to complete strangers, especially in the grocery stores. People aren’t expecting to be spoken to and usually are caught off guard. I have picked up accounts and extra business just by being friendly. Give it a try. It works.

Take people to lunch. Lunch is a non-threatening event that allows you to chit-chat with someone you barely know without it appearing that you’re networking. You never want to appear that you’re networking. People despise thinking that they’re being “worked” to someone else’s benefit, so always offer to help them first. That creates an imbalance in their mind that they need to pay you back somehow. When you have a reputation for being helpful, for going out of your way to establish relationships with people, they generally reciprocate by becoming willing to help you later. Go ahead, buy someone a cup of coffee or take them out for a sandwich.

I have a little joke in my office that whenever I go to lunch with someone, I try to make sure I get to pay the bill. When the other person offers to reimburse me, I say, “That’s okay, I’d rather you just owe me.” It’s a joke of course, but the principle is the same.

When you do get the opportunity, ask questions about what they do. Don’t cross any lines that would make you appear to be a snoop, but if you ask someone in another department to go for a cup of coffee, ask them how things are going. Ask what their role is and how it plays into the grand scheme of things. Volunteer some information on what you do and seek opportunities to work on a project together. Later, if that does happen, be the most helpful person you can, and pass along praise and encouragement. Become genuinely interested in what they have to say.

I have no problem asking people what they do for a living, or what line of work they’re in. In the US, this is just a commonplace question and no one thinks anything of it.

In some cultures, asking What do you do?” is highly offensive so be sure you know what to say if you’re overseas. I recommend going to Executive Planet to see what other cultures think about this question and about networking in general.

Learn the lost art of listening. There are so many interruptions in our daily lives today, that people have become accustomed to interrupting others without a passing thought about how rude it is. I recently was at a party where I played a game to see if I could get more than three sentences out without someone interrupting me. It didn’t happen all night long and I was struck by how commonplace it was. As I paid attention to other conversations that were going on, no one, NO ONE spoke more than three complete sentences without an interruption from someone else. You even can spot someone else planning an interruption! They try to jump in a few times, nod their head yes (hoping you’ll stop talking soon so they can being talking), then, just when you have the tiniest of pauses, they jump right in. If it wasn’t so rude, it would be very humorous.

I have a tendency to do what I’ve just criticized, namely fail to listen in the hopes of getting my glib little quips. I have worked at it and to be honest, blogging helps. It helps because you get to put everything down on paper and you can’t be interrupted nor can you interrupt a commenter. I’m still learning to listen more intently and to focus on what someone means rather than just what they’re saying.

Regularly attend functions that you like or that holds your interest. Join any association in your field and attend the meetings. If you have a business trade meeting every quarter, go. If you have a monthly meeting for a civic organization, go. If you have a regularly scheduled meeting for school, or church, or local government, go. The more often you show your face, the sooner others in that organization will recognize you as a regular and will get to know you. Once you’re recognized by others in the organization, you’re already beginning to network. Now it’s time for the next step.

Become comfortable talking about yourself and handing out your business cards. The exchange of business cards holds different levels of importance in different cultures, but here in the US, after exchanging business cards, I recommend writing something on the back of it that reminds you where you met this person, what they looked like, and what you spoke about. Later you’ll be better able to remember the circumstances of why you have this card in your card holder.

Don’t be shy in talking about your accomplishments when the time is right. Timing is everything. Only volunteer information if you’re asked, but if you ask enough questions in the right way, you’ll establish a void that the other person will fill by asking you about YOU. There’s your chance.

Volunteer information about what you’ve managed to accomplish recently but do so in humble terms. If you say, “Yep, I’ve broken every sales record my company ever had. No one can even seem to keep up with me.” You will get no where and no one will want to be around you, much less help you. On the other hand, if you say, “I was fortunate enough to have some fantastic support and was able to achieve some important sales goals. I’m just thankful to have a great support team.” Who would you rather work with?

I know one person who is fantastic as what he does, but he has told so many people how great he is that he’s become a cliche. Don’t let this happen to you. Make sure you give credit where credit is due because no matter how great you are, you had help. Even the greatest athlete, statesman, business leader, or community leader will tell you they had dozens if not hundreds of people that have helped them along the way.

Take classes to improve your public speaking skills if you’re weak in that area. Once you begin the networking process, you may be called upon to speak to a group and you want to be ready to do so.

If you can, join a Toastmasters group and hone your public speaking skills.

Never, never never network for the sake of networking. People can pick up on this very quickly. When we meet someone new, those first few moments are filled with millions of non-verbal and subconscious signals and they pick up on them just like you do. Don’t try to charm them. Don’t try to dazzle them with your intelligence. Don’t feverishly try to establish some connection somewhere. It will be so obvious that no one would miss it. Instead, be sincere, listen, and maintain a positive demeanor. Networking for the sake of networking is called calculating. No one wants to deal with a calculating Machiavelli.

If you’re just not a networking type, don’t try to establish 100 different relationships with people in your field. Instead, focus on establishing 5 to 10 relationships with people who are already very well connected. You’ll be able to draw upon their friend, their acquaintances, and their network. Look to establish good relationships with people who are forced to be well connected either by their occupation or their personality.

If the timing is right, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Learning how to network and putting it into practice can help you unlock the potential of your job and relationships. If you learn to play by the rules of the game the best that you can, you’ll have a bank of people to call on when you have a great idea. Those connections could help you launch your new project or idea. If you’re unwilling to network, don’t sit around and complain when you have a great idea and no one seems willing to help you.

One small warning: There are times it is completely inappropriate to network. Learn to put it on hold. I don’t care what your sales manager tells you, if you’re selling life insurance, a funeral is NOT the place to network.

What are your personal experiences with networking?