Career advancement is defined today not by what you know, but by whom you know and who knows you. If you don’t believe this, look at the stats. Professional networking platform LinkedIn reports that 70% of people hired globally in 2016 were by a company with which they had a connection, and that 35% of surveyed professionals said a casual conversation on LinkedIn Messaging led to a new opportunity.
So it figures that knowing the right people in the right places undoubtedly opens doors to new opportunities. Of course, the necessary competencies, skills and the right qualifications are a given. Experts, too, confirm that the most connected people are usually the most successful. Even if you’re happy and secure in your job and have no plans of moving out or advancing your career, networking is still a powerful tool for expanding your horizons, raising your profile and increasing your visibility, which are the basics of getting noticed and form the stepping stones to success.
However, merely passing out business cards and asking for favours from someone you’ve met once, briefly, is as ineffective as it is impersonal. If you want to network successfully it's time to learn how. Networking is a skill that can be learned, developed and fine-tuned like any other business skill.
Step one in successful networking is to have a definite strategy. Defining your target market makes it easier to determine where you need to go, what you want to say and whom you need to say it to. You could target an industry, a market segment, a particular group of people or a geographic location.
Conferences, fundraisers and trade shows are all great places to meet new people, so attend the ones that will attract the type of contacts you wish to have. Events hosted by your professional association are also a great way to connect with people in your field.
Volunteering is another effective way of broadening your network. We all have causes we’re passionate about, or special skills and interests we pursue during leisure times.
Look outside your niche
Many executives and entry-level workers limit their networking to people in the same field and those who are at the same stage in their careers. Connecting with professionals at all levels and across many fields rather than sticking to the comfort of industry peers or former colleagues is a sure way to expand your horizons and gains you access to perspectives different from your own. Who knows, the next opportunity may be just around the corner and you may even discover unexpected ways of applying your skills and knowledge.
But making that contact is only the first step in the game. There are many more steps to take to ensure an effective and long-term connection.
Keep in touch
Failing to keep in touch or reaching out only when you need something is a big ‘no-no’ and you'll soon find your requests for help going unanswered. Social media has made it easier and faster than ever to build and maintain a network. Once the contact is made, you could follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn. A short comment could go a long way to keeping the connection because people appreciate the attention. You could send a friendly email or forward an interesting article or blog post, and once a regular dialogue is established, perhaps suggest an informal chat over coffee. That way, it won't be awkward or one-sided if and when you ask for help.
Ask for favours the right way
Make it personal. Be sure to tell them why you're coming to them specifically, for example, saying, "I understand that you know a lot about this topic, and I was wondering if you can help me," could work well because people like to be recognized for their expertise and knowledge and are more likely to help you if you say so. If not, people feel taken advantage of.
Give people the option of opting out
Pressuring someone to respond with a favour will get you nowhere. When telling a business connection what you're asking for and why you're specifically reaching out to them, it's equally important to offer them a way out, so don't be overly demanding. Give them the chance to pass the buck to someone else or you could lose the connection.
Don't forget the 'thank you'
Failing to thank your contact is not only impolite but also comes across as taking the person's assistance for granted. You risk jeopardizing your relationship and your reputation. A simple "thank you" might sound trivial, but it goes a long way in the business world.
You need to reciprocate
Although there's rarely a perfect match between what two professionals need and can provide for one another at any given time, there’s usually some area in which you could reciprocate, even if that is informal. For example, if you know your contact has a hobby or a particular area of interest you could send them links to relevant information they might find useful or an interesting book/magazine on the subject. Ultimately, you're looking to create a "we" dynamic as in, "How can we help one another?"
Lastly, invest in your relationships
It can pay you rich dividends throughout your career. Networking is about speaking to an individual in the hope of learning about them and potentially helping them, if you do this sincerely, they'll, more often than not, help you right back.