If you’ve been unclear about what effective networking looks like, it might be time to assess your expectations and your approach. Random networking produces random results. Imagine what networking with the right people in the right way can do for you. Figuring out what “right” means requires thought and preparation. Approaching networking with a strategy for getting what you need and allowing yourself time for preparation will ensure you get better results from your efforts. Having a strategy behind your actions will also help you stay focused when opportunities seem unclear.
Without a goal or focus, it’s very likely you will miss relevant, pertinent or valuable information when communicating with people in your network.
Start with a goal in mind. Without a goal or focus, it’s very likely you will miss relevant, pertinent or valuable information when communicating with people in your network. Your goal will help you determine what you need to learn or gain from others. (If you think you have nothing to learn, then there’s a problem brewing before you begin.) If you only vaguely or generally know there are things you need to learn, then it’s important to take the time to get more specific and make a list of what you need.
Review your needs and compare them to your expectations. What do you need? Who is likely to be able to help? How will you meet/communicate with those people? Are you working with assumptions or are you clear about which people are realistically going to be able to help you with what you need? How soon do you need information or actions?
Prepare what you will say/ask. Many people believe that attending events with lots of people will automatically produce some sort of imagined outcome. You may think if you just attend enough events, you will miraculously run into someone who will immediately see/hear your value (through a spontaneous conversation) and offer you a job or refer droves of customers to you. That’s assuming, of course, that the people you run into are mind readers or care enough about you and not what is already foremost on their minds. Your strategy needs to take into account who you would be most likely to run into at any given event. It also needs to consider what might be of interest to them at that event. Once you have considered your audience, then you can prepare a short statement that allows you to introduce yourself (not a 5-minute dissertation) and enough questions to help steer the conversation in the right direction.
Be prepared to follow up. People often make lots of promises in the excitement or heat of the moment when meeting new people. They may be sincere about wanting to help, but their own issues may move those thoughts to the back of their minds, and all action stops. If someone has promised to provide you with information, then it is your responsibility to let them know you will follow up with them. Agree on what the action is and the date you will check back. A ‘thank you’ email that confirms what they offered and the check back date you discussed should be sent within one day. Waiting weeks for someone to come through wastes time and puts you in an awkward position. Agreeing to what has been promised and also managing the process makes it easy for the person to follow through.
Manage your time well. I don’t know anyone who likes having their time wasted. Thinking ahead and determining who to ask, what you need and when you need it is all part of strategy. Asking people for immediate help (when it is not an emergency) because you just got around to it isn’t likely to produce positive results. Plan ahead to get what you need, and allow ample time to account for miscommunications or introductions to third parties. Don’t expect others to turn themselves inside out to help you. Make it easy for them by providing enough information and time to allow them to do what they need to do. Waiting until the last minute (e.g., the day before an interview or the response to an RFP is due) is likely to lead to a lot of running around with no results. In the same vein, planning ahead to know who you want to speak with or what you want to learn while staying aware of time constraints for in-person events will help you get more out of your investment. Attending an event with no prior thought and no plan can still end up being a fun experience but perhaps not as productive as you need it to be.
Stay in touch. Being connected to people through a social or professional network is only as useful as you make it. It’s important to plan times to communicate with others and stay aware of their circumstances. Reaching out to others only when you need something is really bad form. Everyone is busy, and we all can feel like there isn’t enough time. Make the time to nurture your network and you are much more likely to get what you need when you need it.
Building a solid and useful network requires thought, time and effort. Contrary to what many people think, networking can be more than “the luck of the draw” or “happenstance.” You have plenty of ways to control how your network grows and what it can produce if you are willing to develop a strategy for accomplishing what you want.