Networking is often named as one of the critical ingredients for driving your career. The saying goes that who you know matters more than what you know. What you know and what you can do will drive your career – but if no one knows what you’re capable of then it will be hard to get ahead. As important as networking is, a lot of people struggle to do it effectively. In-person networking at events is a great way to generate trust, build your reputation, open doors and generally increase your chances of securing a new role.
By getting out there and talking to people (for example by attending a networking event that you would usually shy away from) a new opportunity that hasn’t been advertised online yet might just come up in conversation. In addition, networking with a potentially useful contact gives you a chance to build a rapport with them, which will increase the likelihood that they will remember you for the right reasons. They will learn more about your experience, strengths and professional conduct. This isn’t something you can get from sending someone a message on LinkedIn.
There is a real skill to face-to-face networking, especially while looking for a job and it’s all too easy to overlook important factors. So, here are a few networking tricks you can try if you are looking for a new opportunity.
Target your search
Before you even start networking, consider your approach. You need to think long and hard about the kind of role you want, and how you go about locating it. For instance, if you start networking knowing only that you want to leave your current company, you will waste your time talking to just about anyone who will listen on the off chance that they could help you. Not only is it an inefficient use of your time, the person on the receiving end will feel overwhelmed by your vague demands and won’t know where to start helping, even if they wanted to.
Instead, consider your requirements in terms of role, industry, company size, progression opportunities and company culture. Once you have this clear in your mind, you will be better guided on where to look and who to talk to.
Look at your existing network
Now you have a better idea of what you want, cross-reference this with your informal network i.e. friends, family, friends etc. Do you know anyone in your desired industry who you can take to lunch to pick their brains? Is there someone who has a really good job and you want to follow in their footsteps? Spend some time with these people and get to know a bit more about them.
The benefit of informal face-to-face networking is that this is a more relaxed environment where you can be subtle, less rushed and all during your own time. Therefore, when speaking to these acquaintances, don’t immediately bombard them with questions about how they might be able to assist your job search. Socialize as you usually would in this situation; ask about their lives, see how the conversation flows and if it doesn’t come up then subtly steer the conversation towards career.
When you do start talking about your job search, don’t be too direct or demanding. For example, instead of saying “You work in finance, do you know of any roles?” position it as “do you have any advice for someone looking to get into the finance sector?”
As addressed above, some will say “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” while others believe you can only get a job based on merit alone, it’s a combination of the two; in the sense that having someone who can make introductions or give you inside advice will always act as a catalyst for getting you to the interview stage to show off your merit.
Find the right events
While informal networking is easier to fit in to your schedule, professional networking may be necessary for finding new opportunities. Put some of your personal time aside, dust off your smartest blazer and get out there.
Don’t just look for networking events, look out for conferences, exhibitions and recruitment fairs related to your desired industry and profession. Learning opportunities are useful in themselves, they will attract the contact you are looking for and will provide natural areas for discussion.
If you find networking difficult then repeatedly attending events organized by the same company can be useful – it gives you the opportunity to meet the same people frequently and develop a better relationship.
Where possible try and access the list of attendees and use current contacts to introduce you to people you want to meet. Use breaks in the sessions wisely.
Engage during events
Many people find that first step of introducing yourself to someone you don’t know to be a real challenge. It really helps to remember that networking is actually the reason the other people are also at the event, and they are usually grateful to the person who does the “heavy lifting” of initiating the conversation.
When it comes to what to say there are various possibilities such as commenting on the event or shared experience such as the weather. Never underestimate the power of small talk and the places it can take you. As the author Debra Fine once said – “small talk is the biggest thing we do!”
one approach is being honest and open, example: “hello, do you mind if I introduce myself? I don’t think we’ve met before” or “excuse me, I don’t know anyone here, could I join you?”
As long as your words are accompanied by a big smile, outstretched hand and good eye contact then you will always be welcomed. Once you start chatting it’s important to be professional but friendly. The way to strike the right balance is by relaxing, keeping the discussion two-way, seeing how the conversation flows and identifying any opportunities where you can discreetly “self-promote” yourself.
If the conversation reaches a point where you think this person may be able to help you find a new opportunity, be subtle and ask for advice. For example, instead of asking outright if they can find you a job, say “given your experience in X industry, can you offer any guidance for somebody looking to build an X career in that sector”.
Remember that building a network doesn’t just happen at events. Recruitment consultancies will often have a rich network of clients and colleagues so if you take the time to register with an agency such as Hays, you can reach out to multiple people from just one meeting. By having a face-to-face meeting, the recruiter can get a feel for how you present yourself, what type of places would suit your personality, and connect you with an invaluable host of contacts.
Don’t be a hit-and-run networker
People aren’t interested in giving you a transactional benefit but they may be interested in developing a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s critical to show interest in the people around you rather than simply trying to get information or help in the short-term.
Whatever context you are networking in – make sure you turn up prepared and with business cards. When receiving someone else’s business card or contact details, make notes afterwards regarding what you spoke about and remember to connect with them on LinkedIn. Keep in contact with them, send them a follow up message – you never know what will crop up in the future, so make sure you stay connected and fresh in their minds.
Be open to helping others
Networking in person is a two-way street, it’s important that you try your best to add value to your contacts as well as benefit from them. You might have contacts or a viewpoint that can be really useful to the people you are speaking to, you might be able to return any favors. Information travels through networks via pollination, picked up by busy bees and passed on in exchange for other nuggets.
Online networking is a fantastic tool for your professional development and both active and passive job searches. However lasting relationships are still based on face-to-face contact with human beings and it’s really important to decide how you are going to develop real-life network of professional relationships.
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