I envy natural-born networkers: The sunny teens who know everyone within the first 48 hours of summer camp. The polished business majors smoothly chatting up professors. The political and pop culture junkies who can join any conversation. In a world where it’s not what but whom you know, these super-schmoozers seem destined for success.
But what if you lack those skills? What if slapping on a grin and a name badge and performing some small-talk soft-shoe to impress strangers is your idea of hell?
Good news: Networking is more flexible and natural than you might think.
One reason networking might feel phony is that you’re thinking of it as just a means to an end. “Don’t talk to me about job hunters who are networking,” said career adviser, start-up founder and author Penelope Trunk in a 2007 blog post, “Networking for people who hate it.” “When you need a job, you’re not networking, you’re calling in favors.”
Networking is most effective and authentic when you don’t need anything — and when it’s a two-way street. “When you are helpful and useful to other people, people will jump to do things for you in return,” Trunk told me.
Odds are, you’re already part of a personal community that you can rewire to include professional networking. “Use Facebook to reconnect with your college buddies,” says Lyle Hedgecock, a Virginia lawyer and retired Air Force officer. “Because you had common coursework, they are likely in similar fields, and they can connect you with job opportunities and others in the industry.” (And vice versa.)
Sometimes building a network is as simple as showing up for fun. Years ago, I signed up for a “belly-robics” fitness class, which led to joining a Middle Eastern dance troupe and volunteering to edit the local dance association’s newsletter. I ended up friends with a veterinarian, a government intelligence expert and a number of business owners I’d never have met otherwise — all fellow dance aficionados.
Pro tip: For a jump-start on finding fun, try Meetup.com or your local young-professionals group.
If you’re already employed in your field, you’ve got a pre-poured networking foundation. Building on it is as simple as “Good morning” and “Can I help with that?”
When networking among your colleagues, Trunk says, “Do not go for the most impressive person” at the top of the org chart. Someone just a few years ahead of you, with fresh memories of transitioning to the working world, may be more helpful.
Then again, Imani Greene, PR manager at LinkedIn and a 2009 Howard University graduate, found that her near-peers, perhaps seeing her as competition, “didn’t do much to pull [her] up.” Greene began making a point of regularly saying hello to one of the top decision-makers at her then-employer, sometimes asking whether he wanted anything when she was headed out for fro-yo. Now he’s her valued mentor and career adviser. Her advice: “Treat senior people as though they’re human.”
If you’re not that bold, just make yourself useful. Occasionally volunteering for aggregator tasks — organizing meetings, gathering donations or taking lunch orders — gives you an excuse to approach colleagues at all levels. And if word gets around that you have a stash of ibuprofen or some specialized skill such as knowing “who” from “whom,” you may find colleagues beating a path to your cubicle.
Pro tip: In professional emails to strangers, it’s better to err on the side of formality. Call your correspondent “William” unless you see him signing off as “Bill.”
Although job-hunting sites abound — Indeed, Monster, CareerBuilder, Glassdoor — the best-known platform for networking is LinkedIn.
“Start building your network based on warm and already-built relationships,” says Tey Scott, LinkedIn’s senior director of global talent acquisition. As you work your way out to second- and third-party contacts, add customized greetings to your “Connect” requests.
On traditional social media sites — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube — follow relevant employers, recruiters and big names. Become a friendly regular in their comment feeds. At a minimum, subscribe to their publications.
Every online community has its own culture, so lurk before you leap. “If you connect with someone who doesn’t know you on LinkedIn, it’s stalking; if you connect with someone who doesn’t know you on Twitter, it’s flattering,” says Manhattan career coach Barbara Safani, author of “Happy About My Job Search.”
Pro tip: When selecting a profile picture, ask: “Is this how I would show up to my first day at work?”
So what if, despite your best efforts, you find yourself at a live networking event, circling dense knots of professionals like a shark trying to break up a school of sardines?
First, do some advance recon. Before the event, send an email introducing yourself to the organizers, to give you a lifeline and a foothold. At the event, approach lone bystanders like yourself. Be thinking about what you can offer them.
Pro tip: Handwritten notes add value to business cards. Find an excuse to write something on your card — your private email or a recommended contact. When you receive a card, jot a note to help you recall the person later.
Presumably, you don’t set reminders to contact close friends or keep detailed records of how you met them. But with professional networking, that’s exactly the thing to do.
Check in periodically by forwarding articles, leads or anything that says, “I’m thinking of you.” That keeps connections alive and inspires others to think about you, too.
Pro tip: You can manage contacts with a site like JibberJobber or vowel-averse apps like Shapr, Closr and ntwrk. But most veteran networkers I spoke to rely on a plain old Excel spreadsheet.
Yes, it’s work. But many things we might take for granted in college — metabolism, relationships, connections to like-minded peers — demand more effort and maintenance after graduation. And when it comes to standing out among thousands of applicants and finding those hidden-gem opportunities, luck favors the networked.
Miller writes the weekly @Work Advice column for The Washington Post Magazine. You can schmooze her up on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (@KarlaAtWork).
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