The Best Networking Happens Far Away From “Networking Events”
I have been to more than my share of networking events. Since starting my career, I’ve learned something: the best networking happens far, far away from them. So, if the thought of small talk with a stranger while trying to juggle both a glass of wine and your business cards leaves you cold, there is hope. There are better ways to make the connections you need to build an amazing professional network.
The first thing to understand is that there are two types of connections you’re aiming for: strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are the people we really know: the relationships we’ve nurtured (more on that in a minute). Weak ties are everyone else we’re connected to: the friends of friends, the faceless members of a professional listserv, most of your Twitter followers (and their followers), and so on.
Arguably, your weak ties can be the best thing going for you in a job hunt. Other people know what’s happening outside of your view, and can point you to opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise hear about. So, by all means, find that one person at the party who knows everyone, strike up a conversation, and get yourself connected to their network.
There’s a but coming. BUT. That person who knows everyone – a lot of the time they’re doing it wrong. If you’ve ever been in a conversation with someone and you can sense them looking around for their next connection, you’ll know exactly what I mean. A lot of the time, their conversational partners leave the encounter feeling unimportant and neglected. Not the best place to start a relationship.
There’s that word again: relationship. That’s all a network is – a series of relationships, some deep and some more superficial. In my own life, it’s been the deeper, more authentic relationships that have been my best sources of support and growth as I navigate my career.
So, how do you cultivate those deeper relationships? Three things have worked best for me:
Get involved. Find your champions. Be generous.
The best career connections I have made have come from getting involved with projects I’m excited about. You can do this at work, but also getting involved with initiatives that are happening out in the world is an amazing way to make new connections. Find the things that are happening in your community that spark your interest and excitement, and become a part of making them happen.
For example: I help organize an awesome community speaker series. Any time someone is interested in getting involved, whether as a speaker or as a volunteer, we are so excited to have them. This is especially true when that person has something specific to offer (marketing expertise, an affinity for organizing files, sponsorship ideas, photography skills, and on and on). More than a few of the people I work with on that project have gotten real jobs through their involvement, directly because they’ve connected with someone who sees their talent first hand and wants to offer them a job.
Can’t find anything you’re interested in being a part of? Create something. Find like-minded people (meetup.com is great for that), and start building something. The keyword here, though, is collaboration. You can’t work alone in your basement and expect to find an audience or community, or to build your network.
Find your champions
As you go through life, you’ll notice something: some people really connect with you – your vibe, your personality, and your talents. Luckily, you will usually feel the same way towards them. Spend time nurturing those relationships, because those are the people who will be incredibly happy to see you succeed. They want to help. So, go for coffee. Send them nice emails. Talk with them about your goals. So many of my jobs have come through people who know what I’m looking for and have gone out of their way to help me make it happen. I’ve gotten to know who is really in my corner, and I count on those people for support and connections.
That leads to my final tip: be generous. Relationships go both ways, and if you become a champion for the people you care about, it will have a hugely positive impact on your own career. I’m constantly finding opportunities to share with my network. Sometimes it’s saying, “I met someone that you absolutely have to connect with.” Sometimes it’s recommending someone for a job that has come up. Sometimes it’s sharing an article that I think they’ll get something out of. It is always about doing what I can to support and nurture their lives and careers.
A quick note: this is not just about promoting your friends. This is about cultivating an awesome professional network that you can feel good about recommending, because they do great work and you want to help them succeed.
Networking events have their place. They’re great when you need somewhere to start – you’re entering a new industry, you’re at a conference where you don’t know anyone, or you just really want to meet some new people. To really have an impact on your career, though, take time to find the communities where you’ll find your best matches, and start focusing on building relationships, not just your “network.”