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If you’re over the age of 21, you’ve already heard about the benefits of networking. You’ve been told that connecting with the right people will help you grow both personally and professionally. From personal experience, I can say that having relationships with like-minded individuals that you respect, and genuinely like, can provide valuable support and lift your spirits when you need it most.
Since most of us already know the Why, I called on a three networking experts to help explain the Who, What, Where and When of networking.
A New Attitude
What is networking? Many people still are under the impression that networking consists of shaking hands and pressing their business cards on anyone within arm’s length. Often these are the same people constantly on the prowl for someone in a position to help them. What they don’t realize is that their “what’s in it for me” attitude precedes them. If you want people to run when they see you, this technique is probably fine.
To the initiated, whose focus is on developing relationships, networking means something completely different. It’s the idea of building long-term relationships that will be mutually beneficial. It’s providing support, sharing resources and looking for ways to promote your colleagues. And it’s done without keeping score.
“The idea is to think of networking not as being something you can get from someone. But, rather making connections where you become the resource, and learn to give before getting,” says Andrea Nierenberg, principal of The Nierenberg Group, a business consulting firm specializing in communication and marketing.
Another advocate of developing mutually beneficial relationships is Melissa Giovagnoli, recognized expert in developing personal and community networks and co-author of Networlding, Building Relationships and Opportunities for Success. Giovagnoli and co-author Jocelyn Carter-Miller, describe Networlding as a “purposeful process of collaboration that not only achieves mutual goals, but also leads to professional and personal fulfillment.” In The Networlding Support Exchange Model, relationships are built on a seven-level hierarchy that begins with exchanging emotional support, and culminate with sharing several types of support with members of their community.
OK, for one reason or another you’re ready to start networking. You find the idea of building relationships more appealing than engaging in superficial chatter. But, who do you start with?
The easiest place to start is with friends and family. In the beginning, you may be more comfortable approaching people you know already. And you may be amazed at Aunt Susan’s connections. For example, she may know a printer who’d be interested in bartering your design skills for their printing services. Which would provide extra exposure for both of you.
Remember, the character of your contacts is just as important as who they know. “Always look for people who will support you and look out for your best interests. Avoid anyone who may be discouraging or jealous,” advises Stephanie Speisman, life and business coach.
Before setting up your network, Giovagnoli suggests taking the time to connect with your own values, “Identify what really matters to you, then use your values as a guide or marker for the people you want to meet. Look for people who inspire you and have similar values.”
Building your network
After going through the list of people you know already, you may wonder what’s next? To the novice, figuring out the best where and when to meet new people seems like a hurdle. But, to the expert, this is the easy part: Once you have the right attitude, you can make contacts anywhere.
Nierenberg has made connections everywhere from the dentist’s chair to the Long Island Railroad. “The idea is to constantly follow up. When someone asks you for help or information, give it immediately. And without ‘keeping score,'” she says.
Sometimes, however, you may be in the market for a more formal networking opportunity. In those instances, seek out professional organizations and your local chamber of commerce. If you’re looking for a new job or considering a career change, a professional organization can be one of the best places to learn more about the field and possible openings. If you’re a business owner or consultant, the local chamber of commerce can help you connect with colleagues and potential clients in your area.
Make the most of networking events by being prepared. Giovagnoli advises planning your connections. “If you can, talk to someone who’s in charge of the event to find out who will be there. If you can’t find out in advance, go a little early and ask at the front desk,” says Giovagnoli. “Your goal shouldn’t be to meet a lot of people, your goal is to meet just a few, but the right people.” She recommends targeting and developing your connections based on your goals, values and beliefs.
Once you’re there, don’t be afraid to approach people. While you may think that this is one of those “easier said than done situations,” I can tell you that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Just be open and honest, and don’t forget to be a good listener. There is no substitute for being genuinely interested in what someone is saying. Make it a policy not to give your business cards to people unless they ask. If you think there may be a connection, ask for their card.
Like personal relationships, professional relationships often are a matter of chemistry. How can you tell if you’re connecting? Trust your instincts and listen. “If you’re having a conversation and you feel like you’re really selling yourself, trying to prove yourself to someone, you’re not connecting,” says Speisman.
When you do hit-it-off with someone, be sure to stay in touch. Even if there’s nothing you can work on together now, there may be a project in the future. Our expert’s collective suggestions include writing a note, sending an email, and following-up with an article or some other information you think might interest them. You also may want to give them a call and arrange to have lunch.
What happens when you connect online? It’s difficult to have lunch with a contact who lives across the country. One idea is to supplement email with periodic phone conversations. Anther option is to chat online. Set up a time to chat using one of the Instant Messaging Services or meet in a chat room. (Yours or theirs.)
Traditional networking has a “what’s in it for me?” mind-set. The newer, relationship-building model asks, “How can we work together?” Initially, this approach takes more time. It requires a significant amount of care, consideration and commitment. But, the time you spend today is an investment in tomorrow, and the return will be immeasurable.