Secrets To Successful Networking

Originally published 1/19/2017

In the era of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I literally cannot count the number of times I have been told that in order to overcome the old boy’s club, I need to “stop being afraid and get out there and network.”  For most people I know who despise networking events, it’s less about fear of making connections, and more about failing to see the value of schmoozing with strangers, or a desire to not come off as a smarmy used car salesman just trying to sell an idea or profit from a connection.  While I’ve seen my fair share of people who attend networking events just for the appetizers and (often) free booze or precisely to sell every single person they meet on their big idea, I’ve actually enjoyed many of these engagements, and I’ve made lasting connections.  As a recovering extrovert, I do feel drained rather quickly if I can’t form a meaningful connection and cut past the small talk of weather and sports.  Here I want to share my best tactics for networking in a way that is valuable and worthwhile:

  1. Everybody poops.  That’s right.  The CEO of the company poops, as do all the executives, so you shouldn’t be afraid to approach anyone in the room.  Some finesse and strategy may be required if there are office politics at play, but at the end of the day, we are all humans.  If you think you have a great idea or insightful question, don’t be afraid to approach someone with a superior title and strike up a conversation.  When you approach these executives or anyone else you’ve deemed as more important/successful/whatever, you can quickly tell what sort of person they are and whether or not you want to continue to associate with them.  There is no point wondering what could be.  Stop guessing and take action.  And it would do you well not to forget that you poop as well.  Your title, position, or accomplishments do not give you the right to condescend or dismiss others because you perceive them to be “less than” in some arbitrary regard.  Everyone is human and deserves a basic level of respect for sharing humanity and this earth with you.  If you need added incentive to not be a jerk, think of Malcolm S. Forbes, who said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him,” and remember that people may be watching when you least expect it.
  2. Don’t try to meet everyone.  Walking into a room full of strangers can be overwhelming, especially for introverts.  Rather than collecting business cards like it’s your job, passing from one meaningless connection to the next, set a goal to talk with 1-3 people (whatever number pushes you past the edge of your comfort zone but doesn’t outright terrify you).  Knowing you only have to talk with a few people takes some of the time pressure off to make your rounds during the event, and it also gives you permission to leave early.  In these conversations, you can focus on quality over quantity.  You now have the opportunity to form meaningful connections with other humans, not simply identify the people who you think can do something for you later.
  3. Come prepared.  Most people I know show up at networking events without having thought about who they want to meet, what they want to accomplish, or what they want to say.  It’s a great idea to craft your elevator pitch before you set foot in the event.  Come up with a short, concise way to describe your current role, the unique value you add, and what you love about it (or what you’re looking for in a new role).  When someone inevitably asks you what you do (which always seems to be question #2 at most networking events, shooting up to #1 if you happen to be wearing a name tag), you can answer the question in such a way that leaves a lasting impression because you’re getting personal and highlighting your strengths.  You’re no longer “Bob the graphic designer,” who is forgotten even before the first crab cake is finished, but rather “Bob the graphic designer who loves to create logos for small businesses because he has a knack for seeing the essence of a person or business and turning it into a memorable image.”
  4. Skip the “networking” event altogether.  The best connections I’ve made have not come from a traditional networking event, whose sole purpose is to connect people with each other.  Rather, as Adam Grant put it recently when promoting an article on networking, “I’ve always found that the best networking happens when people come together for a purpose other than networking.”  Participating in service events is my favorite way to meet new people.  Before I even strike up a conversation, I feel connected to the other people there because we share the desire to serve our community.  This shared interest can also be a great conversation starter (“What is it you love about volunteering with Habitat for Humanity?”), helping you get to know someone in a more authentic way than just learning their name and position.  There are endless Meetups tailored for any interest.  Something is bound to pique your interest.  Just remember to prepare your elevator pitch before you go!
  5. Thank people for their time.  I firmly believe we can all make more time to express gratitude.  If for nothing else, I like to thank people for their time.  The time they spent talking with me is time they will never get back, and I am always grateful to connect with a new human and learn something about them.  When I craft my thank you notes, whether handwritten or by email, I make sure to highlight 2-3 specific things that stood out during our conversation.  This goes a long way to showing people you aren’t just sending mass thank you notes to everyone who attended the event.  It’s also a great memory jogger, in case this person met a lot of people or happens to be terrible with names.  It’s also great to reflect back to someone something they said to you, affirming that they were truly seen and heard, and that you weren’t just mentally counting down the seconds until the conversation was over because you were out of bacon wrapped scallops.

In reality, these steps are pretty simple, but not always easy, to follow.  We seem to live in a culture that values quantity over quality and rushing from one task to the next.  If we can slow down to connect authentically with people, come together for a shared purpose, express gratitude, and avoid being a jerk, networking will be a breeze.  Let me know if any of these work for you at your next event.