As young professionals, you hear all the time that you must network to find internships, jobs and mentoring relationships. Yet, many of you don’t know how to connect effectively with the business executives who can help you advance professionally. Many of these executives are willing to share insights, but few young professionals know how to successfully connect with them. Effective networking takes work; wishing and hoping for an effective network won’t get you anywhere. Our always-plugged-in world has upped the pace of life for established business leaders just as it has for you. Here are five strategies to help you approach building your networking effort by being efficient, organized and focused.
1. Build Your Network Before You Need It. The best time to start networking is while you’re still in school. Look for professional groups in your field. Attend their events with the goal to meet people working full-time in the field and learn from the speakers. Many of these groups need volunteers. Become one. It is a terrific way to gain experience, credibility and build your network. If a businessperson or alum speaks at your school, go up to them afterward to thank them for their presentation and get their business card. Then follow up by writing a note thanking them (even better mention something they said that resonated), ask a follow-up question about their talk and if they are willing to meet with you to talk further. Also, send them a request to connect on LinkedIn. Be sure to include a personal message with that note rather than the generic connection request.
2. Build Relationships in Small Increments. Remember, older generations work off of relationships, not casual one-time meetings. Relationships built carefully over time with mutual interest can turn into the path to your next step in your career. Building relationships with professionals is a skill, and like any new skill, you have to practice it over time. Be patient and let the natural timing work to your advantage. Slowly and carefully is better than rapid and all-in. Be selective and try not to cast your net too wide. You want networking connections that can help you in your field. As you gain confidence, learn to express yourself more clearly and ask insightful questions, which will also help you prepare for job interviews.
3. Be Specific in Asking What You Want. Don’t waste the time of your networking contacts. Be clear about what you are hoping to gain from the meeting. Tell them exactly what you want to do and why you think they can help you. “Informational interviews” are a terrific method for learning about their career path and gaining their insight about how someone like you can build your career too. But make sure you have a stated purpose for the meeting and then stick to it. Ask if there are any events, trade association meetings (e.g., NPMA PestWorld) or volunteer opportunities that you should consider to help you build your network and gain some good foundational experience. Then respect their insight and follow up by attending and getting involved. This gives you another opportunity to either see them again or to follow up with another touch point to thank the connection who suggested it.
4. Face Time is Critical. We’re all too used to communicating by text and email. While that works in many situations, networking calls for much more personal methods. You need to build a relationship. This means personal connection. People can only get to know, like you and want to help when they meet you in person. This takes more time and effort, but the truth is, networking takes work to build a relationship.
Ask for a 15-minute face-to-face meeting. Plan to go to them to make it easier to get on their calendar. Prepare for your meeting by having reviewed your contact’s professional LinkedIn profile and company website. Have your question list ready before you get there (translation, don’t wing it). Greet them with a strong handshake and eye contact. Listen carefully and take notes as they answer your questions. Conclude the meeting with a sincere “thank you,” in person and with a follow-up handwritten note. Yes, handwritten. An old-fashioned snail mail will make you stand out. It is also a professional touch that is appreciated. Mail it the same day as your meeting. No kidding. Face time includes social media too. Make sure your LinkedIn profile projects a professional image. It is not Facebook or Instagram. Think of LinkedIn as your online resume, so keep it updated. Use a business-looking photo, not a casual one. Then use your profile to build and maintain your professional connections. You will stand out if you “comment” on the posts your contacts make. Each comment is another form of face time.
5. Use Your Expertise to Help Others. Yes, you have it. You’re way ahead of the previous generations in technology and they can learn from you. You could enhance your networking relationship by sharing something you learned about a new technology or a tip sheet on advanced use of a software program. You could send them links to articles on topics you think are relevant to the business leader’s industry.
Share what you are learning as a way of thanking your new networking connection and keeping in touch. One interaction is not enough. Remember to “pay it forward” too by asking if there is anything you can do to for them. There might not yet be an answer, but it counts that you’re interested in a two-way street if possible. You may have some insight on how to use the latest technology gadget that will help them or might provide some insight on a challenging problem they are having with a young professional on their team. Always remember: you have valuable knowledge, too.
The author, Jill Johnson, is president and founder of Johnson Consulting Services, a highly accomplished speaker, an award-winning management consultant, and author of the forthcoming Bold Questions series. Johnson helps her clients make critical business decisions and develop market-based strategic plans for turnarounds or growth. Her consulting work has impacted nearly $4 billion worth of decisions. She has a proven track record of dealing with complex business issues and getting results. For more information on Johnson, visit www.jcs-usa.com.