Networking Skills

Success in any area of business requires open communication channels with others. Professionals in all fields rely on networks of people they can call on when they need assistance, information, or advice. In return, they offer assistance, information, and advice to others.

Networking, as an activity, means intentionally broadening one's own network of connections. This involves becoming socially acquainted with others who are involved in career-relevant activities and listening for opportunities to conduct business at a future date.

Professionals interact with others every day, but after a few months in any job, we tend to see the same few people repeatedly. These people remain important contacts, but career growth requires growing that circle of valuable connections. Networking thus requires moving outside the daily routine to meet new people.

Some professionals shortchange their own careers because of an aversion to networking. You might not enjoy all of the steps, but it's rare to enjoy every facet of any responsibility. Here are a few common objections, along with some ways to get a fresh perspective.

Networking is manipulative

People sometimes object to networking on the grounds that it is artificial or even manipulative; the idea of meeting people just to "use" them later seems insincere, at best, and even a bit sleazy. Remember, you are also putting yourself out there as a potential resource. You might not feel like an expert yet, but networking is a reciprocal deal. Your new contact might need to know something simple: the name of someone at your company or whether you enjoyed the entertainment vendor at a company event. If "using" others seems unpleasant, think about networking in terms of being of service to an increasing network of colleagues.

Networking is for Extroverts

A common objection involves a very real discomfort with talking to strangers. Some individuals thrive on meeting new people, and networking is one of their most favorite professional activities. The rest of us need to find ways to streamline this professional chore and locate ways to make it more pleasant.

  • Buddy up. A favorite trick is to find an equally introverted networking buddy and attend each other's various professional events together. Don't hang back and talk to each other; encourage each other and work together to get the job done well.

  • Be useful. Another good tactic involves working on tasks with small groups of new acquaintances. Avoid the big networker cocktail parties in favor of service activities or committee memberships. Don't volunteer for the job that requires spending quality time with a spreadsheet; make a point to find a job that involves talking to a few people on a regular basis.

Networking is Time Consuming

There is no question that professional networking takes time; the average professional spends 2 to 6 hours each week on various professional events, organizations, and responsibilities. Those at the 2-hour end of the range typically report that networking has made little difference to their careers, while those devoting 6 hours report great career benefits (Misner, 2012). (Professionals in sales will spend even more time developing leads, but usually as part of normal job responsibilities.)

A busy professional already working 50 or 60 hours a week might be tempted to pass on community involvement or the social events sponsored by her employer. The result can be a negative spiral of more and more hours of unproductively working with a shrinking network of resources that can help make her more productive. Networking is an investment in productivity and the career success that comes with it. Do save some time by finding ways to double up on benefits:

  • Take up sports or healthy lifestyle activities where new people are coming into the group regularly.

  • Get active in social activities at your church.

  • Make playdates with the parents of your children's friends.

  • Use work events to meet people who can help you be more productive.

Networking is a lifelong professional activity, although young professionals often think of it strictly in terms of job hunting. A healthy professional network certainly does help. Surveys typically find that well more than half of successful job hunters find their jobs by tapping their networks, and two-thirds of all conventional jobs are filled through informal methods. On the other hand, randomly sending a resume to everyone you or your parents knows misses the point of networking as the creation of permanent professional connections.

  • Take steps to start building a network long before you begin the job search. Get acquainted with faculty, alumni, and fellow students in your major. Take advantage of career fairs, mock interview days, and corporate visits to build relationships with recruiters and alumni. Communicate regularly with relatives and mentors from your high school or church.

  • Maintain those connections, just as a professional would. It's not enough to meet many people; networking includes staying up to date with them as well. Make a point of getting people's contact information, and then use it appropriately to stay in touch. Keep others up to date on your activities, and pay attention to changes that others report. Use social media-and all your social graces-to develop real relationships.

Network connections can include nearly anyone. Becoming socially acquainted with others who are involved in career-relevant activities can happen at the dry cleaners, the gym, or the family dinner table, not only at corporate networker events.

Begin with listing the network you already have. You already know at least a few friends of your parents, some of the parents of your friends, neighbors, roommates, possibly a landlord, and at least a couple of professors or campus staff. You have adult acquaintances at church, maybe a country club or marina, and across a variety of hometown businesses and civic, school, and political organizations. You might have joined a fraternity or campus organization, become involved in a sporting team or volunteer activity, and somewhere along the way, you've run into doctors, insurance agents, manicurists, dry cleaners, and bankers. Finally, every job or internship has introduced you to co-workers, supervisors, and possibly clients or vendors.

There is a professional organization for every profession, a business community in every town, and a wide variety of civic, church, social, sports, and recreational organizations where professionals mingle regularly. Try to join at least one organization in each category.

Professional Organizations

Ask a mentor or supervisor if there is a professional organization that most of your colleagues join. If there is, be sure to join it as well and get involved right away. Otherwise, take some time to familiarize yourself with the professional organizations that are available. An organization with a local chapter will offer more networking opportunities, and an organization that crosses industries will offer a more diverse network.

Community Organizations

When you move to a new town, check out the opportunities for civic or volunteer service, the church of your choice, and organized sports and recreational activities that you might enjoy. Say yes to every invitation, at least for a while, as your coworkers and mentors try to get you connected with the community. Professionalism includes service to a community, but you'll also find yourself more productive in your job when you can easily tap local resources. Try to find an organization that allows you to meet local people from other companies, other industries, and other professions.

Social Organizations

Professional success requires attention to mental, emotional, and physical health, and networking includes building friendships with those who understand the stresses and challenges of your work. Family and co-workers are important supporters, but sometimes we need a friend who understands what we're going through but isn't one of the players in the drama. These friendships can grow in both professional and community organizations, but it pays to have a few friends who know you in a completely different setting. Whether you like yoga, duck hunting, or knitting, make a point to find a setting where you can connect with others who share your passion but don't share your work.

Over time, a professional's colleagues form a robust network, and a common bit of advice warns never to burn a bridge. People you dislike or mistreat can show up at the next job as a boss or key client. Beyond that, many organizations foster communication among employees. Job site or team events are common, but large companies will also create platforms to connect people from different plants, different countries, and different divisions. Employers expect you to take advantage of these resources, and your corporate reputation might depend on your visibility on a company intranet or resource directory.
Staying up to date with school friends remains socially and emotionally fulfilling, but don't neglect the formal alumni network. You can join your alumni association for a nominal fee, which gives you access to a wide range of individuals who share your academic background and university allegiance. These total strangers can become your welcoming committee in a new town, the entre to a prospective client, or business partners around the world. Join up, and keep your contact information up to date.

Networking involves more than simply making contact with individuals and obtaining a phone number or email. That new channel of communication must now be maintained with regular use.

Save the contact information in a place where you can find it. A pile of business cards sitting in a drawer is just trash. Serious networkers keep track of their contact information, whether it's an old-fashioned business card sorter or rolodex, or an electronic spreadsheet or customer relationship management (CRM) software. Sales professionals learn to use these tools early, but anyone can be more effective by keeping all contact information in a single, consistent location. Every corporate email system and every cell phone has a contact list. Use them, and synchronize them regularly.
Make regular contact with people. That might mean once a week or once a year, depending on the person, but don't lose track of people! Some colleagues set up a calendar of regular communication, sending a quick email or making a phone call to update each other on latest developments. Milestone dates like business anniversaries or contract renewals can go on a calendar as a reminder to check in. Many professionals use CRM software to flag contacts they haven't heard from in a while. Often, organizations will host mixers for the expressed purpose of helping colleagues catch up once or twice a year.
Mind your manners. The point of a network is to share information back and forth. Don't ignore people when they have questions you can answer or problems you can help solve. If you company asks people in your position to participate in an intranet, discussion board, or networking event, take on that role as an important aspect of your professional development.

The opportunities for networking over the internet expand daily, and companies increasingly expect their employees to participate in electronic discussions, blogs, and chats. Professional organizations sponsor bulletin boards and forums. Individuals develop contacts through social and business networking sites.

With the wide variety of electronic media available, it can be easy to meet others in multiple electronic venues. For example, an accounting professional might join a local alumni chapter that hosts a LinkedIn group, become active in the audit-discussion forum of the local CPA organization, and participate in his firm's internal staff training forum. With nothing to go on but a screen name or email address, a colleague might never realize that she was communicating with the same person in all three groups, negating the whole point of networking.

  • Take full advantage of the profile function. The ongoing conversations build relationships and share resources, but the presentation of a complete identity plays the role of the handshake and eye contact of face-to-face networking. Others need to meet the same "you" across every venue. Provide complete information at each electronic venue, including your company, title, and work-related details. Do not include personal details about age, family, residence, or hobbies.

  • Display a professional photo. Faces seal the deal when it comes to human interaction, and any professional networking platform will allow you to use at least a small one. Ideally, use the same photo for each venue and don't change your photo randomly. Let people learn to recognize you by sight, and you'll begin to sense the same kind of acquaintance relationship you have with people you see walking in and out of your building each day.

  • Present your real self. In a professional setting, we're obviously not concerned with false identities. However, it is important to present a fully human personality, not just the minimal facts of name, company, and title. Online discussions tend to focus narrowly on the topic at hand, without much of the normal chitchat that would happen in a meeting or at a mixer. A little self-disclosure will help foster relationships, however, and even a characteristic greeting or sign-off can give others a sense of your personality.

Many organizations do not allow their employees to have social media accounts, while others actively encourage their use. Before becoming involved in any new online activities, find out the expectations in your profession as well as your own company's policy.

Federal Regulations

SEC regulations govern the public communication of financial analysts and financial representatives such as stockbrokers or financial managers, including any online communication, even a personal twitter account or family Facebook page. While it is possible to comply with the regulations, many companies will opt to prohibit their use entirely. Similarly, health professionals subject to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), might be prohibited from using public social media as a precaution against inadvertent disclosures.

Professional Impartiality

Many professions, such as CPAs, lawyers, mediators, and sports referees, must maintain a neutral position, and social media can easily allow others to see personal biases, opinions, and affiliations. Even when the employee carefully sets aside those views to reach an impartial decision, others involved might perceive an unfair situation. The solution for many becomes a complete prohibition.

Personal Safety

Some professions, such as law enforcement and social services, involve personal safety concerns, and employers might guard the safety of all employees and clients by prohibiting social media. Business professionals typically do not face threats of personal violence, but those who travel internationally, work in highly technical or government-related industries, or have access to valuable information might be asked to limit their social media activities.

Professional Propriety

For everyone else, a company's policy covers expectations of professional behavior, which can either limit or expressly encourage customer interaction, personal or family activities, language use, photos, or specific topics of conversation. Regardless of the company's rules, remember that social media remains public forever, and anything embarrassing, negative, or threatening to the company's business interests also hurts your own professional reputation and career.

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