Salespeople, industry moguls, and ambitious professionals have all trained themselves to be able to walk into a room and seamlessly mingle with people. It looks so easy, doesn't it? For some of us, our livelihoods depend on this critical skill, but for many of us, the dance of professional networking can seem a little daunting. Just as is the case with any skill; practice makes perfect. Nobody begins their professional life at the top of the totem pole, and the path to success is paved with the relationships you make along the way.
Networking is your roadmap to career advancement, increased sales and a greater understanding of your industry. So, where do you start? The old pros may say just be yourself and simply overcome the social awkwardness, but this isn't always enough. Below are a series of tips to help not only brush aside your hesitations but also help develop lasting professional relationships for years to come.
Get Up, Get Out, Get Involved
Half of the game is just showing up. You can't foster a vast professional network by waking up, going to work and going home. Most young professionals fall into this trap, but the truth is that your network isn't going to come to you or develop without effort on your part. It takes dedication, a few hours of your day and occasionally a few out of pocket expenses.
Once you're committed to building a circle of professionals, look for any opportunity to get in front of your industry peers. Volunteering or philanthropy is a fantastic avenue for this: not only do you help make your community a better place, but you can also meet likeminded individuals who can be helpful down the line.
Set a Goal That Excite You
If you are really dedicated to growing your network you need to be prepared to set a series of goals that will help you get there. Colorado Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne embodies this practice: though not a Colorado native, she decided to test out a hypothesis in which she would meet 100 of the most influential people in the state — in just 100 days — to gauge the value of her resulting relationships. Through a mix of rock climbing, skiing, philanthropy and asking for introductions, she became one of the Top 25 Women in Healthcare and a major female business leader in Denver.
Eventually, her rise caught the eye of Governor John Hickenlooper who nominated her to be Lieutenant Governor. All of this began with a simple goal to grow her network. Your goal does not have to be as extreme as Lynne's, but being ambitious and enthusiastic about growing your network will help set you in the right direction.
Play 'Six Degrees of Separation'
It really is a small world after all. Social scientists have estimated that every single person on earth can be linked by a least six degrees of separation, and in a world constantly connected by social media, those six degrees are shrinking closer to four and five every day. Just imagine how intertwined your industry is!
That being said, it's common knowledge that who you know can often be the best avenue to meet who you want to know. Social networks, especially LinkedIn, are almost specifically designed to aid in this process. Asking for an introduction from one of your colleagues is easy and contains the added bonus of having something to talk about to ease the awkwardness.
One of the best ways to appear engaging is to ask engaging questions. All of us sometimes find ourselves finishing a conversation almost exhausted and out of breath: most likely we were talking a little too much and probably about ourselves. It's a very common reflex to fill an uncomfortable silence with personal antidotes or giving someone a little more background about ourselves. Of course, this is understandable given we know more about ourselves than anything else, but at times this can collapse into a live reading of an autobiography. Next time you find yourself with that inevitable silence, ask a question and a few follow-ups. Practicing this skill will make you a stronger conversationalist, not just professionally, but across the board with friends, family and colleagues alike.
Circle Back and Keep Track
Don't let any of these opportunities go to waste by becoming a forgotten face in a crowd. If you exchanged contact information, a follow-up email is an easy next step. Something as short as, "Olivia, it was great meeting you yesterday at the 25th Annual Save the Puppies Foundation dinner. I had a nice time talking to you about your company and learning more about your product. If you're free sometime, let's get coffee and talk more."
Worst case scenario you don't receive an email back, but still you haven't lost anything! Another great practice is to try to keep a log of all of these new contacts you make — along with a few notes — in your address book or on a spreadsheet. Not only is this a fantastic practice for matching names to connections, but you can see and measure how your network is growing.
It's much easier said than done: building a sustainable and productive professional network takes time, but the fundamentals are pretty straightforward. Luckily, it doesn’t take a charismatic extrovert to be a successful networker. Anyone can develop the skills to make a few meaningful connections at an event or have a power lunch every week. Time, dedication and self-confidence are the only tools you need to push your career (and Rolodex) to the next level.