Effective networking is the difference between going in blind and knowing how to leverage your social skills to boost the power of your network. A strong network is a powerful tool that grows organically and creates a robust safety net, as well as proving ample opportunities for personal and professional development.
However, networking isn’t a one-player game. And it’s not usually a good idea to go in blind and hope for the best. In fact, the more time you take to calculate your approach, and the more effort you put in to create value for your contacts, the more your network will be available for you.
In this article, we’re going to go over what networking involves, how to break it down into steps, and best practices to follow, regardless of the approach you choose.
The Networking Process
Effective networking follows a lot of basic social principles, but is typically more calculated and driven by goals. Still, it’s important not to make the mistake of approaching it with a cold and mechanical attitude; this is likely to quickly set you up as someone who can’t be trusted.
Instead, the networking process can be separated into three basic categories: Planning and Research, Execution, and Follow-up.
In the first category, you’ll be setting up your desired approach based on the information you’re discovering about yourself and those who can help you. During Execution, you’ll be taking the leap and finding your new connections, and in the follow-up, you’ll be checking in, nurturing, and nudging people towards your goals.
Still, this isn’t a one-sided operation, and it’s important to follow some best practices to make sure you’re a high-value contact yourself. If you don’t create value for others, they won’t be motivated to reciprocate for you. You’ll find out more about these at the end of this article.
For now, we’ve broken down the three categories into five sequential networking stages for you to follow.
The Five Stages of Networking
Networking processes can be split into stages that, when combined, form an iterative, repeatable strategy that works to boost your network in almost any context with just a simple adjustment.
This means, with a five-step networking strategy, you can carry your networking process through your personal life from business school or college through to your startup or investment career simply by making small modifications as you go.
Here is how we can break down networking into five key steps:
1. Develop your Networking Plan
Depending on which networking approach you’re going to take, your networking plan will take the context into account and allow you to execute your strategies effectively. Before going out there and finding contacts, it’s useful to have a detailed plan that limits redundancy and allows you to make the best use of your time.
Spending more time planning will cut out wasted efforts in your execution, and so will save you time and resources down the line. So, how do you do it? Start by answering the following questions:
What are you Networking For?
Do you want new career opportunities or are you looking for investors in your project? Perhaps you’re looking for a mentor or a future business partner. Whatever you’re looking for, make notes and articulate your motivation for networking in the first place.
Who are your High-Value Targets?
This is more or less a natural progression from the first question. Once you know your goals, create an ideal contact profile, or several, and identify who they are and what makes them tick. This will give you an idea of where and how to find them.
What are your Targets?
How many contacts do you need to find in this round of networking, and how many can you realistically manage and nurture? Set a goal so that you will know where to stop or whether your efforts need adjusting.
2. Identify your Targets
If you know the answers to all the previous questions, this one will be relatively simple. You’ll have considered one or more methods of networking and be able to start the second step in the research stage, which is to identify where your potential connections are and how to start meeting them.
Here are three of the ways you might try networking, depending on whom you’re looking for:
Networking Events – these might provide a diverse group of people from within your and similar industries, all gathering for the sole purpose of networking. This has the benefit of removing all pretense, creating a safe space for networkers, and bringing like-minded people together.
Interview – If you’re looking for an introduction to the industry, you might plan to reach out and request an interview from someone. This method also works to expand your network through high-value individuals who might be able to connect you to others.
Online – Online networking has a great number of benefits over physical networking, but it does come with some opportunity costs. When networking online, you’re going to want to put in a lot of groundwork to develop your presence. The rules are different online, and when using it to your advantage, you can benefit from a huge diversity and range of accessible, high-value contacts. However, you miss out on the personal touch, which can be invaluable, so this strategy is best used in combination with other approaches.
This is the execution stage. There are basic principles to socializing with your contacts that apply to each approach and should be followed at this step, and we will go over those in more detail in the next section. However, for interaction with your target groups remember there are also different strategies to employ depending on your chosen approach.
Networking Events – Make sure you show up to these with some physical media to hand out, but don’t go in throwing cards everywhere. Engage with people and listen as much as you talk, then lead them to your contact as a closing of the conversation, if you find them valuable.
If you’re not confident, remember that plenty of other people find these situations forced and awkward too, and it’s just a matter of practice.
It might be worth attending some public speaking classes or events beforehand, to get a bit of a warm-up and boost your public confidence (you never know, you may end up finding contact this way too!).
Interview – This can be an informal and much more personal approach to networking. Most professionals are very happy to share their knowledge with less experienced people, and it’s not too difficult to arrange a meet-up if you play your cards right.
It’s not necessary to put the pressure on immediately; instead, just send an email and ask for a lunch or coffee appointment to introduce yourself. If you’re more remote, perhaps a phone or zoom call will be a good place to start, but always try to show up in person if possible.
From the first meeting, it’s a matter of nurturing and maintaining a balance with your contact, something that we will cover more in stage 5.
Online – There are countless ways to network online. LinkedIn publishing is one way to reach like-minded professionals, or if you’re looking to expand your customer base and bump into investors, your social media presence can be a powerful tool.
When dealing with online marketing your goals are to establish yourself as a trusted (not necessarily the most experienced) voice in the industry, and as such, it takes a lot of seed planting and contributing to groups and demographics whose goals overlap with yours.
There are other ways to network, but these three should give you a fairly good idea of the range of opportunities available to you. From here, it’s a matter of leaving your details in the right place, with the right people. Once you’ve made that connection, it’s time for step 4.
4. Follow Up
If you’ve made a good first impression, you’ll be well-received when it’s time to follow up. There’s no hard and fast rule for this, but a follow-up should generally be kept casual and short, and be timed around 24-48h after the event. This means it’s still fresh, but enough time has passed for your contact to settle back in at home or in the office.
The follow-up is an opportunity to ask that question you forgot to ask at the time or send that link you referred to when you met. It’s also useful for bridging the contact and opening the floor for reciprocation.
Because of this, always try to leave the follow-up with either a question or a request, or a nudge for another meeting, depending on the contact. There should always be something to respond to so that the connection doesn’t go cold.
Offer to help, link to your social media or LinkedIn, or connect them with someone else they might be a good fit for, just make sure it’s concise and to the point, while staying friendly.
After the follow-up, the nature of your relationship reaches the nurturing stage. This is a period over which you will maintain and push the relationship toward the goals you’ve got in mind. This is as much of an art form as it is a necessary skill, and it depends entirely on the nature of your relationship and the type of people you’re dealing with, when and how you’ll want to do this.
A few of the basic rules for nurturing relationships are:
Stay in regular contact – Don’t leave links too long. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to maintain a network; you can get away with touching base every few weeks or even months in some cases. Just be sure to check in enough to keep the lead warm.
Be genuine – Remember the last topic you discussed and feed off that when checking in. Remember small details such as birthdays and other special upcoming events or the name of their pets, so that you can demonstrate that you’re paying attention and form real bonds.
Nudge where necessary – this is another balancing act and will differ depending on whether you’re networking with clients, professional equals, or mentors. Checking in is one thing, but your networking efforts are always a means to an end, so don’t forget to pitch your product occasionally or push for another lunch meeting to discuss a specific lead. Just don’t do it too often or you’ll come across as pestering.
For help with all of your connections, it’s a good idea to make use of CRM software. Dex can help you keep all your contacts in one space, and can alert you of important events, or when it’s time to touch base. It can also keep your conversation history so you can pick up where you left off and integrates well with your social media and LinkedIn pages.
This means it’s good for both online and offline networking and makes keeping and building strong relationships a lot simpler, throughout all of the stages of networking.
Now that you’ve got the five steps of networking down you can compare your efforts with some of the general best practices for networking.
Best Practices for Effective Networking
There are plenty of ways in which the approach you’re planning to use will determine the differences in the way you deal with people when networking. However, some things remain true almost universally and are useful to remember to make sure you’re doing things right. Here are some of the most important things to remember when networking:
Listen - Most of these best practices are related to making your contacts feel valued. Being selfish and inward-facing is the worst approach to networking, and while you’re making these efforts as a way to further your professional position, the essence of accomplishment is teamwork.
As such, never go into a room and nod blindly while you wait for your turn to speak. Don’t try to segue your product or your goal into every conversation, and above all, pay attention. Active listening is a valuable skill to learn, and it involves rephrasing and repeating back to someone the point that they’re making as a way of demonstrating an understanding of what they’re saying.
It shows engagement, and it also helps you develop better comprehension skills. Overall, it’s a great tool to make people feel valued and come away with a positive association with you.
Give back - Similarly, your networking efforts should always be considered an opportunity to contribute something. Whether that’s valuable information that you’re willing to share, community work, or connecting people to one another, always try to leave a networking situation having given as much as you’ve received, at least to one person.
Again, the nature of cooperation is such that your contributions will define you as an individual, and this definition should revolve around goodwill, trustworthiness, and honesty. There’s nothing more powerful than giving to build you as a respected figure in your network, and this will provide numerous untold benefits to your personal and private life in the future.
Don’t force things – Good things come from those who wait. Or, sometimes, they don’t. Either way, forcing your way to a goal will damage your long-term efforts, and this means that if someone is hesitant or uninterested, you’re going to do more harm than good by pushing them and creating a bad image of yourself.
Learn when to slow down and when it’s ok to speed up, and take no for an answer. With professional relationships, you can get away with a little more pressure on occasion, but if you have faith in the system, you won’t worry about a couple of dead-ends along the way.
Every contact is a good contact – Don’t discard people simply because they aren’t useful to you directly. Opportunities arise in often totally unpredictable fashion, and as long as you always keep people in mind, there’s a chance that you’ll find someone else who can benefit from being introduced to them, even if you can’t.
The power of a people connector cannot be understated, and this means that every contact can be a good contact, even if they aren’t a good match for you specifically.
Always keep in mind that the nature of networking comes from giving, not taking. In order to be on the receiving end of this giving, you need to be open and deliberate with your generosity.
Networking is an essential social skill that consists of a strategic processes aimed at maximizing your chances of reaching your professional goals.
Your approach will be determined by the nature of these goals and the people you’ll want to meet to facilitate achieving them. Then, it’s just a matter of finding these people, reaching them, and nurturing relationships in a manner that benefits both parties. By creating long-term connections that can be drawn upon in the future, you set the stage for a mutually beneficial relationship.
Following these steps and best practices will allow you to 'have a system' to help you build a your network and the people on your side. The sooner you get started, the better!