Networking seems to be one of those things you either love or hate. But regardless of your personal feelings, few would argue the importance of building and maintaining a strong professional network. While you can get jobs by cold applying to positions you find on job boards, more and more people are turning to their connections to make an introduction or give a reference on their behalf. And it's easy to see why. There are often insane amounts of applicants to any given job, especially for bigger brand-name companies. At the HR Technology conference this October, a talent acquisition leader from Delta said they received 200,000 applicants -- not a typo -- for one flight attendant position. It’s very hard to cut through all that in an Applicant Tracking System if all you have going for you is a resume. You need connections, and connections come from networking.
The problem with networking
Have you ever stifled a groan when someone invited you to a networking event? You're not alone. Networking can often feel forced. We’ve all been to the happy hour events with stilted conversation and lots of business card-slinging. It can also be time-consuming, especially if you have a current full-time job that keeps you busy. And it can feel like the domain of extroverts, which leaves introverts asking: “How do I make the right connections to drive my own career forward?”
For many, there is a real fear element involved in networking and talking to strangers. It also seems like a rigged game that only the most outgoing can win. This dread of networking feeds into our collective understanding of the activity which, in turn, leads to some myths about how or why you need to network. Some might think there's no point in trying unless you can commit to going to physical networking events. Others might think, "I don't have the experience for this to be useful to me yet." And some focus on the size of a network rather than the quality. There are numerous networking myths out there and learning how to effectively use this talent acquisition tool requires shaking off your preconceptions and focusing on what you can do to make networking useful to you and your career.
Fast Company's 5 actions networking model
The second-most read leadership article of 2017 on Fast Company was about “emotionally intelligent things to do within five minutes of meeting someone.” Sounds like a networking event, right?
The five actions included:
- Show genuine enthusiasm
- Offer a compliment
- Ask two open-ended questions
- Find what you share
- Say their name before you leave // commit key facts to memory
These 5 recommended actions are a good place to start when it comes to breathing new life into your networking approach. And of those 5 tactics, the most important might be to find what you share in common. Commonalities are the key to deeper, more meaningful conversations that stand a higher chance of being remembered by both parties even after the networking event is over. This tactic also helps level the playing field a little more for introverts as they tend to be better listeners, so they can glean nuggets from conversations and repeat some of them back more easily.
The mindshare approach
Have you ever heard about Dunbar's Number when you've discussed networking? It's actually a useful hypothesis to keep in mind, especially when considering the networking approach called “mindshare.” You start with the idea of “Dunbar’s Number,” which posits that you can maintain about 150 stable social relationships at any given time. Then, you identify “Legends” in your life — that’s a group of 20 to 30 people who have consistently demonstrated support for you.
Now, ask yourself: In the last month, how many of these people have I made contact with?
When they do these exercises in Silicon Valley — a business-first type of place — often the number is under 50 percent for the respondent. That means, essentially, that out of the 20 people you think support you the most, you often go a full month speaking to less than 10 of them, probably because you’re very busy with your own day-to-day.
But still, that seems odd, no?
The strategy then focuses on communication and habit building behaviour, advising you to reach out to 1 of those 20 people each day with a quick email or voice mail or Facebook message or whatever. You can just say hi and give a little update, or even send them an article of value related to their job, etc. The idea is to make this a part-time hobby and connect with people you otherwise might not think about. Building a habit out of this strategy can keep your network updated and informed as your career progresses. This is important, because so much of business and just general opportunity-getting is serendipity: you’re in front of a person at the moment that person has something that could benefit you. But if you’re consciously out there putting yourself in front of your network, it’s less about luck and more strategy.
The 80/20 rule
Another way to think about networking and growing relationships is to follow the 80/20 rule in live networking scenarios. This strategy advises listening to others 80 percent of the time and only speaking for the remaining 20 percent. This creates a more “give-and-take” model of networking, which will endear you to others and make you more memorable. Like the Fast Company approach, this strategy also gives you a better chance of finding those common connections because you are focusing on the other person and learning more about who they are and what they do, rather than thinking about how they can support you and your career. This also gives your networker a break from the many conversations they're likely having with other job seekers that are all about them and allows you to better stand out in a crowd.
Brevity is everyone's networking friend
One of the most common questions at a networking event, obviously, will be about what you do. It’s amazing how often we get this question as professionals and yet, not that many of us have amazing answers to it. Often people keep it too generic (“I’m in sales”) or try to add too much detail (“I manage the Midwestern markets for an aeronautics parts company, focusing on the Lockheed account specifically. I started in…”).
Think about this as your elevator pitch on who you are. If you only have the space of a few floors, what is the most important information to get across? Here’s some actionable advice, courtesy of Northwestern:
Instead of simply stating your profession—“I’m an accountant”—add a short tag line or explanation to your reply. Emphasis on the word "short." When Wortmann launched his most recent company, for example, his pitch became, “I run a firm called Sales Engine. We help companies build and tune their sales engine.” In two sentences, he was able to give the name of the company, his position, and the purpose of the business. Simple.
Invest in networking
Networking events can be tedious but they're also important to planning your future career path. Now keep in mind, career development isn't the only thing a network is good for but working on your networking skills can help you make the connections now that you may need later in one capacity or another. Building those professional associations is never a waste, even if you just need to canvas their opinion at some point rather than looking for open positions. With the job market staying competitive, having a strong network can help you break away from the pack and give yourself a leg up over your competition. So whether you love it or hate it, spend some time thinking about your professional network and what you can do to keep it healthy and strong.