To many professionals, networking seems like a painful chore. When marketing and PR professional Lisa Chau’s TED-Ed lesson Networking for the Networking Averse went live, it garnered over 15,000 views during its first week. One viewer’s follow-up question was emblematic: “Do you have a hint how I can force myself to keep networks up? Not every network partner is a good friend I would regularly contact on my own.”
Here are four quick ways to make networking more gratifying – and successful.
Change your mindset. Sorry – if you approach networking as a forced chore, you’ll sabotage your efforts. People will be able to sense your negativity, and hesitate to help you. Don’t ruin your chances of connection because you have the wrong attitude. Instead, think of networking as an opportunity to meet people you’ll want to talk to and learn from professionally. And don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking you need to contact everyone in your network all the time; it’s about focus.
Start slow. Choose only three people to start your networking with at first (over time, you can add more). Two should be in your current or desired industry – people you admire whom you think would be receptive to you. Don’t get discouraged; this step may take a while because people are busy and not always available for expanding their list of acquaintances. Just keep trying (you can send periodic invitations for lunch or to join you at industry events) and be patient. The third person you focus on should ideally be a “bridging” connection – someone in a different, possibly unrelated industry that’s doing something you find interesting. You never know when a fresh perspective or social network could be valuable. And a genuine friendship outside of your industry can indirectly lead to fruitful outcomes. Sometimes it’s good to let life organically develop.
Build a schedule – but stay flexible. Schedule a regular time to check in with your network. Maybe you want to contact your three people at the start of every month, or you might prefer to talk to one person per week. Do what’s most comfortable for you – and recognize that people’s priorities, schedules and circumstances change. As you expand your network over time, you may discover that the group you keep in close touch with this year may look very different two years from now. Allow people to fluidly move in and out of your core group, but don’t lose sight of them. Maybe someone you contact on a monthly basis becomes someone you contact once every three months; that’s OK and normal. The key is staying in close enough touch so that they don’t forget you.
Add value. Networking should never be all about the value you can extract from others. You should ask how you can contribute to their lives. When Lisa was traveling to Hong Kong for business in February 2011, she used aSmallWorld.net’s GeoLocator to connect with Pierre-André Montjovet, currently the Strategic Development Director for People Care. She didn’t have a specific reason to meet him beyond the fact that their trips overlapped. They shared a dinner and have kept in touch via email in the two years since. Lisa recently tapped him to contribute a quote to an article she was writing about the evolution of relationships in the digital age.
Lisa and Pierre-André’s story is a perfect example of the power of networking, as it didn’t start out with a specific, calculated intention (“I’m going to meet him so I can get a job at his company”). Instead, she embraced serendipity in connecting with him in a foreign city, and let the conversation play out, to see what they had in common and could learn from each other. They kept in touch casually – not enough to be a burden, but just enough to stay on each other’s radar. And when she had the opportunity, she did him a good turn, quoting him in a media article (and now sharing their story here).
Networking should never be a “forced,” painful activity. Approaching it with the right perspective – as a low-pressure way to connect with interesting people – can yield unexpected and gratifying results.
Co-authored with Lisa Chau at Dartmouth College. Lisa has written about professional development, social media and leadership for U.S. News, Huffington Post and Forbes.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the forthcoming Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.