Listening to a panel discussion on career advice, I asked the speaker, “So, how did you find your job?” Boom came the answer, “Networking! That’s the way to go.” I have heard this same advice from mentors and friends ever since then.
As a computer science major, to me “network” means the linkage of machines to operate interactively. Curious to know what it exactly meant, I looked it up in the Oxford dictionary, which states Networking means “to interact with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career”. My Asian upbringing made me feel uncomfortable with the concept of seeking help, which is perceived as a sign of weakness. In addition to the cultural barrier, as a technologist who spends most of her time behind a computer screen, honing social skills was a challenge I had to overcome.
I vividly remember my first networking event; I had signed up for the event but didn’t think I’d have the courage to attend because I had never gone to one all my life and had no idea what to do and talk about. No amount of online research on “How to Network Effectively” could help me overcome my cultural shackles and social ineptness as it is easier said than done. The saving grace for me was the philosophy that I have always believed in, which is to leverage every single opportunity that comes my way. I resolved to show up because I knew I couldn’t let go of the opportunity knowingly and ruminate later. With my best intentions forward, I took a deep breath when I reached the venue. The experience of walking into a room of strangers felt like walking into a dark tunnel with no light in sight. I felt out of place and kept questioning myself about why was I even there. I secretly wished a false fire alarm would ring somewhere so I had an excuse to get out. Showing up would have sufficed to assuage my guilt.
Soon, however, I began to literally see the meaning stated in the Oxford dictionary come to life with people busily exchanging cards. I found a wallflower and introduced myself to break the ice. In no time a handful more people joined us. I noticed that the interaction was totally focused on how awesome each person was, quickly exchanging cards and then awkwardly rolling our eyes to scan the room for the next person to approach. I came home with a handful of business cards, but felt no meaningful connection and thought there should be a better way of doing this.
Stop networking. Make a career connection. – Click To Tweet
Having attended many networking events since then, I have discovered time and again that the best career connections happen by helping others succeed and building credibility over time. By approaching networking as not just the end goal, but as a mechanism to create personal connections has helped me advance my career and made this an enjoyable process that I look forward to. Today, these kind of connections have become part of my life network and have played commendable roles as well-wishers, mentors who have even opened up their network to me and referred to people that I should connect with. This couldn’t have happened with just exchange of business cards.
Here are approaches that have worked for me to develop great first impressions and career connections, which I would like to share with you.
- It’s not about you – Focus on how you can help others succeed by hearing their story and what business challenges they are trying to solve. This helps you in two ways a) You will be perceived as a person with genuine interest in helping people and b) This approach takes the pressure off you on how to keep the conversation going apart from the weather and small talk.
- Show up – As the saying goes, you can’t do the same thing and expect different results. You have to show up in order to achieve your intentions. With the attitude that networking is not about you, you will not try to come up with an excuse to miss the event.
- Listen with genuine intent – Be in the moment and stop thinking of the next person to approach. Listen with true intent and give the person you are talking to, your time and attention. By practicing, you will control your wandering mind. Be cognizant that the person on the other end could be an introvert. So, if the conversation feels awkward, know that it is part of the process.
- Offer your help – Once you hear their story, share an idea that might be of help to them. Below are ways you can handle this.
- Encourage them to consider a group or resource that you know which might offer more insights on the challenge that they are addressing.
- Consider introducing them to a connection from your network.
- Discuss an article/product/service that you came across that would be of interest to them and state that you would follow up on an email.
- Let them know that you want to think this through and will get back to them when you’ve discovered the right connection or resource to share with them.
- Make it a win-win by offering direct help and then see what they can do for you.
- If you come across an interesting article at a later point, email them to let them know that you were thinking of them and touch base on their progress.
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Remember that you don’t have to necessarily be part of the same domain to offer your ideas; your generic perspectives would help. Now, exchange your business cards because you have a good reason to follow up. When you receive their card, take a look at it for a moment and jot down a quick note on what you plan to follow up on the back of the card before you bid goodbye.
- Follow up – After the event, connect on a professional networking site such as LinkedIn with a personal message, not the standard template and send a follow-up thank you email with a thought that would help them. I maintain my professional relationships on LinkedIn and make notes of the discussion and tag them appropriately for future reference. In my experience, around 10% of the people who exchange business cards initiate a follow-up. It doesn’t mean that they are not interested in you, sometimes it’s the way people work. Take the onus on you to initiate the follow-up and if you don’t hear from them in a mail or two, move on and keep in touch with people that take time to form a meaningful connection.
From being socially inept and unsure of how to strike up a conversation to being a successful Networker, I can tell you that it’s not the business card that matters, but the meaningful connections that you develop over a period of time that will help you form rich everlasting relationships. The next time you go to a networking event and feel the dark tunnel with no light in sight, be assured that you are doing the right thing and the right people will arrive to help you in your journey of life. Your endurance in genuinely investing in people will quench your quest for career connections and lead to a satisfying and enriching career.
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