Updated: Dec 17, 2019
(and not be miserable)
My first foray into networking was a disaster.
During my freshman year at Yale, one of my dormmates talked me into rushing a sorority. At my first rush party, just as my quirky self shoved a dessert into my mouth, I was suddenly set upon by two sisters from the most popular house on campus.
Happy and Poppy (yes, really) were not there to socialize by the dessert table. (Which I later learned was “sorta for show.”) They approached with determination and started peppering me with questions as if they had to get the most miserable deed crossed off their list early in the evening.
As if on cue, upon opening my mouth, a small piece of lemon bar dropped from my lips and onto my shirt.
Poppy’s lips pursed. In an accent that I only later came to identify as Expensive West Coast Private School, she said, “Uhhhhhhh, you have lemon bar on your shirt.”
The word lemon sat on her lips for an eternity.
“No shit,” I said out loud. “You didn’t even give me a chance to swallow.”
Surprise: I wasn’t chosen by them.
Later, I told this story to a group of sisters at a different sorority. They were funny, smart, unpretentious and diverse, and they welcomed me as their own.
Even so, for years I avoided formal networking of any kind. It felt inauthentic and awkward. I didn’t think I had any networks, and I certainly did not think I had what it takes to balance a glass of wine, a lemon bar and a conversation delicately.
I also knew I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Some of my favorite conversations centered around a shared hatred of networking.
Fast forward 20+ years, a few more gaffs and a bit more sass, and I’ve realized that the once “sour lemons” of networking can – with the right ingredient – be as smooth as limoncello.
Here are 5 tips to rethink networking and make it more enjoyable and productive than ever before:
1. Your next big break could be anywhere.
When I first started professional networking, I thought of big to-dos, after-hours events in drab conference spaces, forcibly wearing a name tag, bellying up to a cash bar, all-you-can-eat finger food. (It’s not really to be eaten with fingers. Another hard lesson learned).
I thought I had to run around with my greasy fingers and talk to everyone about every superficial thing, and try to derive some value from it.
Actually, one of my major career milestones was made through a connection on a wedding chat board.
We connected over a mutual passion - not weddings - but rather our common interest in not-for-profit work. I was interested in making a career move and was considering an opening where this online acquaintance worked. After I applied, I shared my application with her and asked if she would feel comfortable suggesting my resume to the hiring manager (who turned out to be a former Kindergarten classmate). She did, and I got the interview.
I also sent her lovely dishtowels from her registry. Because that’s classy.
It doesn’t have to be relegated to a designated time, place or space. It’s about choosing to cultivate a casual interaction into something that could potentially be more.
If you happen to be in an industry where you have to do the big soirees, remember, it’s not all or nothing. A network is simply a mechanism for making a first connection. Finding common ground is the best way to take that connection one step further into an actual relationship.
Protip: You never know where that next opportunity lies. Act like everyone – people at the gym, in the restaurant restroom, even that junior intern – is integral to your success and interact with them accordingly.
2. You need an online strategy, but it’s not the only thing.
LinkedIn is not networking. It’s a place to start networking.
I often hear, “But my personal statement and resume is already on LinkedIn! Can’t RBIP (Really Busy Important Person) see how worthy I am of her time?”
There’s no magic Tinder app of networking (swipe right, you get a job!). LinkedIn and other tools are terrific resources that can be cultivated to serve many purposes throughout a career, but it’s going to take some effort to squeeze out results.
If you’re just starting out, seeking something from RBIPs, selling something, or just making a huge leap, consider that reaching out to desired targets can be seen as overstepping. If you want to cold connect to someone via these platforms, consider finding a common connection to make the introduction, or offer something– perhaps a great post you just shared.
As your career matures, these platforms may serve to showcase your hard-earned knowledge skills and ability. The more active you are on these platforms with thoughtful content, the more likely you are to get something in return.
Pro tip: If you are targeting folks at a certain company or leaders in an industry, come clean about who else you’ve reached out to. The level-up of networking is mentoring, and RBIPs want to spend time helping people with a clear reason for reaching our and likely mutual value proposition , not just a “spray and pray approach.” Assume they talk, have broad networks that can help grow yours and are probably pretty good at sniffing out inauthenticity.
3. When “live,” think logistics.
Sometimes the hardest thing about networking is navigating physical space to avoid potentially awkward interactions and to maximize your exposure.
Have you ever found yourself in a room of people that you hope to engage, wedged behind a table with someone talking at you for what seems to be like an eternity? Or, how about the surprise introduction to boss/board chair/god while you are mid-sentence in a whole other realm of professional conversation?
Taking a moment to evaluate your circumstances can help you execute a bold but bite-sized engagement plan. Think networking reconnaissance.
Here are some ideas:
If you are with others, invite someone into your group to start new conversations and connections (you all have one thing in common – you’re in the same place for a reason).
If you are working a room, have a pathway that leaves opportunity to move freely.
When landing for a period of conversation, choose a space where people can see and reach you but aren’t necessarily able to approach you from all sides.
Finally, carry as little as you can, and put the phone away (until you need to trade vCards). You need two hands to manage the snacks, anyway.
Protip: Always read the audience. Sometimes a firm handshake and strong eye contact can be a little off-putting, so take a minute to observe others before jumping in. Make sure you are proficient in a specific networking culture, which can vary widely from one demographic, country, or industry to the next. For example, not everyone wants to make physical contact. Before you stick out your hand, pause. It’s perfectly acceptable to greet someone or be greeted with a smile, a slight bow, or a hand over your heart.
4. Have a good question prepared.
Some networkers skim the crowd and keep moving from conservation to conversation. Others will want to go deep.
Mostly, people won’t remember what you say about yourself. They will remember the nature of the interaction.
Was it comfortable? Easy? Casual?
Come prepared with a question that can elicit information about the other person. Without getting too personal, you want to dig deeper to really get to know them. Optimally, that question is something they can easily ask you as well.
Here’s a favorite: “So what brings you to the Sloth Lovers of America Achievement Awards tonight?”
Or if you know their motivation, you can go slightly deeper: “As a Board member of Axe-Throwers Olympiads, what keeps you serving year after year?”
Then really listen.
Make it easy on others, and they will be inclined to make it easy on you.
On the flip side, sometimes the flow of conversation is not at all what you expect and you need to change course.
You may run into loudmouths who need an intervention before consuming all the air in the room. You might find that you are talking to folks you didn’t realize have exceptional experience, power or influence – maybe a once-in-lifetime opportunity. Thoughtful questions open the pathway of engagement.
It's also important to show self-control! As someone who not only seeks out networking connections but is also sought after, there is nothing less satisfying than someone rushing the getting-to-know-you period and going right for the ask in an uncomfortable or inappropriate time frame. (Or someone who asks for too much, abuses the connection shamelessly, etc.)
Relationships take time, and no one wants to be hurried based on misaligned expectations or a false sense of urgency.
Protip: Follow with a good story, when the time is right. Know your best snippet, and have a solid punch in about 30 seconds. You do not have to give your whole resume, nor do you have to justify your reason for living. You can leave people wanting more. Just have something on deck that is engaging, humorous, interesting, off-beat, a little vulnerable or whatever it takes to be memorable.
5. Take explicit action. Then do it again. And again.
First, give yourself a reasonable networking goal, especially in a formal setting.
Second, follow up with a prompt and meaningful interaction.
Do you feel like you are having useful conversations? If yes, keep going. If no, it’s okay to exit stage left and save your energy and business cards for another day. It might just not be your day, your scene, and/or your people. (Remember Happy and Poppy?)
In formal circumstances, shoot for one to two meaningful connections and only bring as many business cards as you feel like you can manage to follow- up on within one to two days.
Networking is an ongoing process. The first contact is just that. The follow-up is where the magic really happens.
Write a few template emails and be explicit about what you want/can offer. You have to put in the time and effort.
Not everything will be fruitful. Keep digging.
As you start to transform from skeptic to superhero, remember that networking is not a career sprint. Rather, it’s the backbone of a career marathon. If you make the time and effort to practice, act with integrity, and learn to withstand the highs and lows, you will watch your endurance and victories grow!
And bitter lemons? No way. Just plenty of fruit to pick for that next sweet career treat. Just make sure there are napkins to catch the crumbs!
Protip: Stay true to yourself! You are unique and you have something special to offer, so bring your real self to every opportunity. Maintaining multiple personas for “formal networking” and “the rest of life” rarely serve in the long term and it’s exhausting. You are the only you out there, and that is a precious gift.
About the author: Nicole Licata Grant is a professional do-gooder, full-time corporate executive, and aspiring better human. She is also the co-host of the off-beat career advice podcast, b Cause with Erin & Nicole.