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Networking: what it is and how to do it
As the old saying goes, it’s not what you know but who you know—and networking is one of the best ways to ensure that, when it comes to advancing your career and professional reputation, you know the right people.
1) What is networking?
In the context of this article, we’ll primarily use ‘networking’ to refer specifically to face-to-face interactions, in a professional or semi-professional setting, that aim to establish relationships with people who will become your friends, employers, or colleagues. However, networking is increasingly an online activity too, with websites like LinkedIn allowing people to share business connections and employment recommendations more easily than ever before.
If you’re new to networking, you may come across the common advice that it’s possible to integrate anybody into your network: old school or university classmates, distant family members, the families of your friends, any professionals you know, and so on.
While this can be a helpful way to boost your network with low-hanging fruit, it’s important to remember that opportunities do exist for more focused networking. For example, many professional associations, such as Engineers Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia, run networking events for their members. There are also many organisations that encourage networking amongst people with similar interests or backgrounds. The Women’s Network Australia, for instance, aims to support connections between female entrepreneurs and small business owners.
2) Three tips for effective networking
Given the obvious benefits of networking, it’s discouraging to note that many people report finding it difficult to network effectively. Of course, networking can be tough: it requires you to get outside of your comfort zone, interact with strangers, and manage the pressure of knowing that first impressions really are lasting.
Fortunately, the skills of successful networking can be taught and learned. So, if you’re uncertain about your own networking skills, consider the following three skills: they could help you stand out from the crowd like a networking pro
a. Learn as much as you can about the networking event beforehand
- Whether you’ll be attending a business luncheon or a dedicated networking event, you should aim to know as much about it as possible before you arrive. This will give you a chance to prepare any important questions, consider what conversational topics might arise, and make a note of any individuals you may be interested in meeting. Take care to consider the following:
- Who is hosting the event? For example, if you’re attending a networking event hosted by a startup incubator, it could be helpful to learn a little bit about the incubator’s history and key personnel.
- Will there be speakers? Often, networking functions feature a guest speaker who addresses a topic of importance to attendees. Researching who the speaker is can prepare you to ask any questions you might have or, better yet, give you something to share with other guests (e.g. “I heard she gave a TED talk about modern open offices. Have you seen it?”
- Who else will be in attendance? It’s helpful to make a note of any attendees it could be particularly advantageous to meet. You can even reach out beforehand (say, on LinkedIn) to introduce yourself and mention that you’d love to meet them in person at the networking event.
- What are your goals for the event?Are you hoping to make friends? Impress prospective employers? Meet specific people? Ask important questions? Arrive with a clear idea of what you’d like to achieve—this will help you to focus on the important stuff.
b. Brush up on your conversational skills
- It’s important to introduce yourself with confidence to new contacts and then move the conversation towards a topic of shared interest. But what then? If your conversational skills have fallen into disuse, you might find yourself floundering. So here a few quick tips to keep the conversation flowing:
- Use open-ended questions Open-ended questions can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’: they ask instead for explanation and elaboration, creating a space in which conversation can flourish. For example, you might ask “ What motivated you to pursue a career in accounting?” or “What attracted you to this networking event? How did you find out about it?”
- Listen actively Give your conversation partner your full attention and engage with what they say by asking for details, providing feedback, and encouraging them with your body language by nodding occasionally, using facial expressions, maintaining and open and interested posture.
- End conversations politely You can do this by waiting for a natural pause in the conversation and then thanking your partner for their time. It may be necessary to provide an explanation, such as by informing your interlocutor that there’s somebody you’d like to speak with before they leave (in this case, make sure that you do proceed to speak with somebody else).
c. Follow up consistently on your new contacts
At the end of a mutually satisfying conversation, you may decide to swap details with the other party. Ideally, you should aim to be the type of person who collects details instead of giving them away, which gives you the option of following up later. It’s important (and efficient) to do so in a consistent way, such as by sending an email or making contact on an appropriate social media platform (like LinkedIn).
This is a great opportunity to thank the other party again for their time, ask any outstanding questions, and, if desirable, suggest a further meeting. Alternatively, if you’d like to reinforce the connection without immediately acting on it, you can send a friendly message that says something like: “Hi John, It was a pleasure meeting you at the startup networking event on Thursday. All the best with the next stage of your company’s growth!”