I only get inspired to write when I get heated about a topic. This month I am extremely passionate about networking—more specifically, how to nurture your network correctly. Because I enjoy sharing advice, I often meet with new grads and young professionals looking for career guidance. I help them review cover letters, offer lessons learned, and when I can, connect them with potential job opportunities.
Lately, I have been shocked by the bad networking habits exhibited by many of the intelligent and highly-capable individuals with whom I have met. Recent experiences in particular made me question whether at their age, I also had poor networking skills. After some reflection, I realized to my horror that I did. I can recall a handful of mentoring opportunities my dad helped me get in my early 20s where I performed less than admirably. There is one meeting in particular with a C-Level executive that makes me cringe.
Everyone preaches that networking is good, that it’s supposed to help you. Few people teach you how. Everyone arms you with advice for making new contacts. Few people teach you how to keep those contacts. Most people promote the notion that networking is about transactions—”I help you, you help me”. Not enough people promote the idea that networking is actually about fostering a lifelong community of contacts that respect, trust, and like you. We are failing students and young professionals by not filling these knowledge gaps.
Most of the good networking habits I have grown to expect I have learned the hard way. By sharing them below, I hope to spare you the trouble. The list is by no means all-encompassing, but it consists of the five networking best practices I value most highly and that I see missed time and time again. I would love to hear how they work for you. More importantly, if you have other networking tips you want to add to the list, we could all benefit from and would be ever grateful if you share them in the comments below.
1. Before requesting a meeting, define why you are reaching out and say so. Do you want to understand what it is like to work in my field? Are you meeting with me because you are hoping I will consider you for a job? Are you looking for general career advice from someone with my particular experience? When you walk out of the room, what will you consider a successful outcome? A well-defined purpose is absolutely critical to any fruitful discussion. Therefore, if you reach out to me with your goal for our discussion, I am more likely to meet with you and better positioned to help you.
2. Come with questions and genuine interest. Since you will have explored the purpose of our meeting in advance, use that to put together a few questions to guide our discussion so you get the information you are looking for. After you ask each question, listen attentively to the answers and take notes, where appropriate. Your nerves may get you from time to time—I know I blacked out a few times from panic mid-discussion during the cringeworthy meeting I mentioned before—but find a way to ground yourself so you can absorb my answers.
3. Follow-up with a “thank you.” Most people, including me, don’t offer their time or advice for a “thank you.” However, we are extremely grateful when we receive one and it tells us you are polite and professional. A hand-written “thank you” note is rare and automatically gets bonus points. Remember, if I connect you with my network, your behavior reflects on me and my hard-earned reputation. A simple “thank you” shows me I can trust your social graces and makes me ten times more likely to recommend you.
4. After our meeting, let me know how things are going. Was my advice useful to you? What worked? What did not work? Do you have any follow-up questions? Of all the advice I have shared, only two people have ever contacted me to let me know the outcome of my suggestions. Their feedback not only made me feel like the time I spent with them was worthwhile, but it also helped me understand how to better help others in the future.
5. Do not wait to reach out until you need something. Last but not least, your network should not be a resource you only turn to in a time of need. Like friendships, professional contacts should be fostered continuously. I like to set Google alerts for contacts and companies with whom I have an established relationship so I can stay current on their professional accomplishments and send them a note whenever there are milestones worth celebrating or discussing. My dad also taught me to keep track of birthdays and anniversaries by putting them in my calendar. This is not to discourage you from reaching out when you need advice or a favor. However, that should not be the only time your network hears from you.