What’s the first word that comes to mind when someone mentions networking? If you’re like a lot of people, perhaps your word is not quite positive. But you shouldn’t view networking as a dreaded, insincere activity where everyone is just putting on a fake front and pushing themselves.
It’s important to understand what networking is … and what it is not. It is about sharing information and contacts, getting the help you need, getting more done with less effort, building relationships, and helping yourself and other people to be more effective. It is not about selling anything (including yourself), getting a job, soliciting donations, securing funding for your project, or forming superficial relationships where people use each other.
Your network can be extremely valuable and offer you access to information not available to those in the general public. You have the opportunity to hobnob with people of diverse skillsets and perspectives, and even help them with favors that can then be returned.
Not all networks are created equal. In addition to size (bigger is better for more information, contacts, etc.), your network is determined by the strength of the ties you have to other people. Strong ties to contacts can get you more access to favors from those people, but weaker ties aren’t always a bad thing. You can’t have strong ties with everyone in your network, and weaker ties can give you more access to lots of different types of information, skills and perspectives.
The way your contacts know each other — or don’t — and how tied in you are to the flow of information also determines you network’s strength.
Your role in your network can play into your career path. Managerial, professional and technical employees tend to find jobs through weak ties in networks — perhaps a contact they met briefly at an event. That means the more people you meet and network with, the more likely you are to find new opportunities.
Get the most out the opportunity to meet new people. Step one? Make the effort:
●Have a positive attitude about networking. Networks are critical to your success. Shed the belief that networking is a ploy to get ahead by money-grubbing soulless glad-handlers. It’s all about building and sustaining relationships, and it can certainly be fun and beneficial. We all have the capacity to do this well.
Cultivate your networks . Don’t think about it as building your network; rather cultivate relationships — put as much into developing relationships with your contacts as you hope to get out them. It takes time and effort. Leverage your personal strengths and talents to form bonds with others. Seek out groups and individuals that share your professional or personal interests and passions.
● T o build relationships: Establish acquaintances . Meet and talk with new people at social events. Maintain some infrequent contact with those people over time. Not all ties need to be (or even should be) strong ones. To generate more strong ties, convert acquaintances into friends.
●Practice good communication. Know and respect the relationship expectations and boundaries you establish with your contacts. You have to develop a mutual trust and rapport to deepen a relationship. Match your communication level to that of the other person. Don’t get too personal with conversations about thoughts and feelings if they are reluctant. Share information about yourself; but also be a good listener.
Reciprocate. Don’t let relationships become one-sided. If one of your contacts offers you career information, a great recommendation or advice, return the favor.
● Take a long-term perspective. Networks work best when grown for the pleasure of friendships, versus instrumental purposes. Your network should grow organically with emotional energy you invest over time.
Network where you are comfortable. If you have a hard time meeting new people, build on contacts in your existing work or social network. Volunteer for projects that put you in touch with people you haven’t previously met or don’t know well. If you’re a golfer, participate in golf outings where you don’t know the other folks in your foursome. You can relate to each other over your game. Think about your other hobbies, interests and volunteer commitments as potential career network builders. And don’t overlook the Internet. Though nothing replaces building a relationship in-person, connecting with others via LinkedIn.com, Facebook or other Web sites is a great way to find new contacts to cultivate.
Be yourself . If you’re an introvert, embrace that about yourself and find ways to successfully meet people in settings where you feel comfortable. And if you thrive on meeting new people, get out there and work the room!
Cynthia K. Stevens is an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is an expert in workplace issues and her research focuses on recruitment and staffing, decision-making, diversity, and how to work with difficult co-workers.