For some reason, many people don't like to hear this, but networking is one of the most effective ways to advance your career, as long as you approach it the right way. On the face of it, networking's simple: Meet people and develop relationships with them. However, if you pursue people thoughtlessly you could end up doing more harm than good. To help you avoid tripping yourself up, here's some tips.
It's a Two-Way Street
You can’t tap perfect strangers on the shoulder and expect them to do you a favor. So don't just ask for help. Offer your own by sharing job leads and news, providing endorsements and introducing people. Being thoughtful is a part of this, too. Send congratulatory notes for accomplishments and thank-you notes when someone gives you an endorsement or a referral. If you spend time helping others, there’s a good chance that they'll step up when you need a hand. It's particularly important to send a thank you note to everyone when you find a job. Lucy Martin, president of New York-based Smart Marketing Communications, contends that you should write even to people who didn't directly help you. Including them, she says, will help you down the road. It's not that far-fetched of an idea, really. People like to be included, they like to be recognized, and they tend to remember the people who reach out in nice ways.
It's a Habit
If you stick with it, building relationships doesn't have to be hard. For some people, it's in their DNA. They’re the first ones to sign up for conferences or invite people to lunch, for instance. But most importantly, they don't wait until they're out of a job to start making contacts. They weave networking into their daily activities. If you aren't a networker by nature, be deliberate about it until it becomes a habit. Start by setting a few realistic goals. Then, integrate your activities into your daily routine by putting them on your to-do list or calendar. Vow to make two new contacts and share a job lead every week. Have lunch with a new contact or attend a user group or event every month. Don't overdo it. Just ease yourself into the process until you find your groove.
You Don’t Have to be an Extrovert
You don't have to be the life of the party to have a vibrant network. Select the formats and venues where you're the most comfortable, and get the ball rolling by building a small circle of contacts. If you're uncomfortable by yourself, go with a friend or colleague. That way, you can break the ice by making introductions and engaging in small group conversations. And, notes Rosen, it's easier to get started by remembering that everyone's in the same boat. Another thing to try is the buddy system. Find a colleague who has similar networking goals so you'll have someone to lean on. Another option is asking a well-connected veteran to be your mentor. That way you'll not only gain networking experience, but you'll get contacts, too.
You Need Face Time
Finally, remember that you can't build real relationships by hiding in your office. "You can't build a meaningful relationship in front of a computer screen," says Rosen. "No one's going to put their reputation on the line by vouching for someone they barely know." Although social media can help you identify contacts and share status updates, you need face time to get to know each other and develop trust. Go to lunch or coffee every few months, or ask a contact to go with you to user group meetings and conferences. Personalize your relationships. Someone you only know online isn't going to go the extra mile to help you.
You Don't Need High-level Contacts
Yes, it's always good to have a couple of CIOs in your network. But the guy in the next cube, vendors or even your next-door neighbor is easier to reach and could be a valuable contact. Since your goal is a mutually beneficial relationship, connecting with a peer usually offers the best return, because what you need and offer is relatively equal.