The term “networking” might inspire groans, eye rolls, and visions of name tags or overly-rehearsed elevator pitches. But networking is really just a term for building mutually beneficial relationships with other people. It’s a valuable interpersonal skill, and it can benefit both your professional and personal life.
What’s the point of building a network?
Networking often goes hand-in-hand with job searching, and it’s true that a large web of connections is a valuable resource when you’re looking for a new opportunity.
However, being a solid networker doesn’t only benefit you when you’re on the job hunt. It offers a number of other advantages, including:
- Support: Whether a fellow leader provides the encouragement you need to tackle a tough conversation with a direct report or some of your industry peers come together to send a gift when you welcome a new baby, your network can help you feel embraced and valued during significant moments and milestones.
- Knowledge: The people around you have valuable skills, expertise, and experiences you can learn from, whether that’s through a formal mentorship arrangement, thoughtful comments on a social media post, or a casual conversation over coffee.
- Connection: Humans are quite literally hardwired to connect with other people. None of us want to feel like we’re on our own, and your network’s support and guidance helps you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.
Keep in mind that networking isn’t about amassing a large audience – it’s about forming two-way relationships. You’re not building a following – you’re building a circle of people who are ready and willing to encourage, advise, back, and applaud you (and of course, you need to be willing to do the same for them).
How to improve your networking skills
There are a few things you can do to forge bonds with other professionals – without feeling slimy about it.
1. Actively engage
If you want to network, you have to put yourself out there. But in today’s digital world, getting “out there” doesn’t necessarily have to mean leaving your couch (although, you certainly can if you want it to).
The point is that you need to actively engage in various events, platforms, and opportunities to start building these relationships. This can include:
- Attending in-person events: From an industry conference to a local young professionals meetup, there are tons of ways to get out and meet new people. You don’t need to attend strictly business meetups either. Even something like a book club or a pottery class gives you a chance to form connections.
- Maintaining your online presence: Today, a good chunk of networking happens digitally, which makes it important to maintain some sort of online presence. Choose a platform (or a few) where you can regularly engage with other people.
- Joining your company’s social gatherings: There’s something called internal networking too, which is building relationships with other people in your company who you might not regularly work or interact with. Attending your company’s social events gives you a chance to meet people outside of your immediate team.
2. Focus on the relationship
Part of what makes networking feel so cringey is that people tend to approach it with their end goal top of mind. They want a job, a recommendation, or free advice.
And while there’s nothing wrong with wanting something out of a relationship, charging right in with an ask feels disingenuous and can make people feel taken advantage of.
Remember that relationship-building is at the core of networking, so focus on that first. Get to know the other person. What do you have in common? What are their goals? How can you help them?
Approaching it that way – rather than starting with a request – leads to a much more natural (not to mention less nerve-racking) relationship.
3. Return the favor
Relationships go both ways, which means you can’t be the one extracting all of the value out of your network. You have to bring something to the table too.
Did someone in your network post on LinkedIn asking for advice? Chime in with your expertise. Are they on the job hunt? Offer to make an introduction or write a recommendation.
The more willing you are to bring value to your network, the more willing they are to return it when you need it.
4. Keep in touch
Networking best practices put a lot of emphasis on building relationships, but maintaining relationships is just as important.
When you lay the groundwork with someone new, hold yourself accountable to keeping in touch. It doesn’t need to be overly complex. Even simple steps make a difference:
- Send an occasional email or handwritten note
- Share relevant resources (like articles or podcast episodes) when you find them
- Periodically engage with their content on social media
- Schedule a coffee date or video chat to catch up
Connections can easily slide off the radar, so set some regular time in your calendar to check in with people. Even half an hour every few weeks can help you keep those relationships strong.
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