We all know about networking: it’s what you do when you need a new job, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, if you only network when you need a new job, neither your networking nor your job-hunting will be very successful. Networking is the process of building and maintaining a network of contacts, and successful networking needs to be ongoing. It needs to happen all the time, in your casual contacts with people by email, on the phone and face-to-face as you go about your everyday life and work.
However, it also takes effort to get to know new people, and to keep up with existing contacts. This page explains more about building and maintaining relationships—effectively, your network—and why this matters.
What is Networking?
“Networking is the exchange of information and ideas among people with a common profession or special interest, usually in an informal social setting.”
“In business terms, networking is the process of speaking to professional contacts and sharing information with them.”
These are very ‘formal’ definitions that make networking sound quite hard work. It may be easier to think of it as simply building and maintaining a network of relationships with people that you have met through work, or socially.
Networking is based on the idea that you can build a relationship with people from a point of common interest. This might be, for example, your professional background, membership of an institution, club or college, or a business interest.
Networking is important because we all prefer to do business with people we know, or who are known to people we know. Broadening your network therefore opens up your business opportunities, whether to sell, buy, recruit or get a job.
Nature or Nurture?
There are two approaches to networking, which we might call organic and deliberate.
Your organic network is the network that you build up through your normal activities and contacts. It will contain work colleagues, people you have met socially, and points in between. There will be many people in this network who will be useful to you, and who you can help.
However, there is another, and more deliberate approach to networking.
You can consciously apply yourself to building and maintaining a network of people based around your career, work and ambitions.
Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis, in their book The Squiggly Career, suggest thinking about three aspects of your working life and career: your current role, your future plans, and your personal development. They suggest that you should actively build a network that will support all three.
They also note that most people’s organic network tends to be based around their current role (and possibly past roles), and therefore NOT future plans.
It is worth taking a bit of time to consider your network against these three areas, to see how it matches up, and then to take action to address any gaps.
When to Network
Networking is not hard.
Once you understand that networking is simply about building relationships with people around you, it should be clear that you are networking all the time. Every time you stop in the corridor to chat to a colleague, or pick up the phone to speak to a contact, you are networking.
Of course, there are times when you are networking more actively—for example, when you go to a professional event, you are almost certainly planning to spend a certain amount of time catching up with old contacts and meeting new people.
However, every interpersonal interaction is potentially a networking opportunity.
It is worth remembering the value of ‘small talk’ in building relationships. Do not underestimate the value of ‘chat’. Relationships are built on personal connections, and the feeling that someone else cares about you, and the minutiae of your life. Take time to ask about what’s happening in someone’s life. How is the new puppy that they mentioned last time you spoke? How are their children? Even just commiserating about the awfulness of their commute can build a bond—especially if you remember and refer back to it next time. If you prefer to keep things on a professional basis, ask about their job instead—but build connections.
If you do this all the time, it will not be a problem when you actually need something from one of your contacts. You will be able to ask for information, or even to be put in touch with someone about a job, because they will know and trust you.
A Fundamental Truth
It is a fundamental truth that none of us likes to be ‘used’.
Human relationships are, in general, reciprocal. Research shows that we have an essential need to be part of a community, to build bonds (relationships) with other people. Those bonds are based, at least partly, on an understanding that when one of us needs help, it will be provided.
However, that also means that we expect to both give and receive help. We do not get the same feeling of belonging when we are only ‘taking’—and we certainly don’t appreciate always being the one giving.
If you only get in touch with people when you need something from them, they will soon stop replying to your messages. Your relationships need to be maintained and supported over time.
You cannot afford to network only when you want something.
How to Network
It should already be clear that networking is part of your everyday working life. You are constantly networking.
However, there will also be people that you don’t see every day, but who are part of your network, or people who you wish to meet. How can you get to know them, or stay in touch with them once you have met them?
There are a number of ways that you can do this. They include:
Industry or professional events, such as conferences
Industry and professional events are well-known networking opportunities. They bring together people with a shared business interest, often from around the world, and give them time to talk. If you plan to use a conference as a networking opportunity, it’s a good idea to make sure that you have plenty of business cards with you.
Remember, this is about building relationships, NOT selling yourself.
Try to build rapport and find common ground with the people that you are meeting. Listen to what they have to say and don’t simply try to be clever.
Don’t discard anyone on the grounds that you don’t think they can do anything for you—you may find that there is a lot more to them than meets the eye. Take time to chat, and see what you have in common, even it is just shared amusement at someone else’s pomposity. That very junior-looking person could be a senior manager in a few years, and you might well value their friendship then.
It is also far better to make a genuine connection with just one or two people than press your business card on 20 people.
There are more ideas to help your networking in our page Top Tips for Networking.
Some people find the whole idea of networking at big events is too challenging. They struggle with the idea of meeting so many new people. If this is you, it may be helpful to read our guest post on Overcoming a Fear of Networking.
Informal events, such as Meet-Ups
Meet-Ups are simply meetings that are organised online using the website www.meetup.com, and held in real life. Meet-Ups are held all over the world, on all kinds of subjects: book clubs, professional events, coding meetings and so on. Once you find a suitable community, you can simply tap into local events, and start to build up your network.
LinkedIn is the obvious candidate for social media networking. You can use your existing network to reach out to new people without seeming ‘creepy’, and to stay in touch with your contacts and see what they’re doing.
For more about this, see our page on Using LinkedIn Effectively.
However, Twitter is also a good way to build your network. Start by following people with similar interests, then engage with their posts, and hope they reply. Twitter is a really good way to make contact with people initially and then—especially for those within your industry—follow up with face-to-face meetings at conferences and industry events.
Twitter is also an excellent way to stay in touch with former colleagues in your industry on an informal basis.
Short courses, especially industry- or skills-related
One very good way to meet other people who are developing similar skills to you is to go on short training courses for particular skills. These people form your peer network, and you are likely to find that they are extremely valuable, not least for sharing tips and skills.
There is more about all these options, and particularly how freelancers can use them effectively, in our page on Networking for Freelancers.
Email is a very good way to stay in touch with people.
It only takes a few minutes to send an email asking how someone is doing, and reminding them that you are changing jobs/offices, or going to be at a conference, and asking if they are also going to be there.
Using Your Network
Building and maintaining a network is all very well. However, is there a more active role?
There are two main ways in which you are likely to be actively involved in your network: when you need or want something, and when someone wants something from you.
Both are equally important functions of a network: you want to give as well as receive, because we all value reciprocal relationships.
What you or others might want could be a new job. However, it might also be as simple as someone’s contact details, or to go out for a coffee, or talk through a problem. All these are valid reasons to be actively involved in your network. If you are actively building and maintaining your network, you may not even notice these contacts as different.
One thing that you might notice, however, is the quality of the interaction, and your/others’ willingness to help varies considerably depending on the nature of the request (see box). Only you can decide what help you need, and what help you are willing to offer. However, it is worth remembering that you get out what you put in, and that this applies to both life and networking.
Top Tip! Timebound and specific requests are easier to manage
You might receive an email or message that says,
“I’m looking for a mentor, and wondered if you would be prepared to help.”
You might be understandably reluctant to get involved. What is the commitment you are being asked to give? What skills or expertise do you have that this person values? How much thought have they put into this mentoring relationship?
However, if the request was worded,
“I want to move into your area of work, and wondered if you would be prepared to have a coffee and talk to me about what skills I might need to develop to succeed.”
…then you might be more prepared to help. Agreeing to a coffee and chat is a very different proposition to an open-ended mentoring relationship.
When you ask for help, be as specific and time-bound as possible.
There are more ideas for how to network in our page on Top Tips for Effective Networking.
Finally, as with so many activities, the most important thing is just to do it!
Take time to make contact with people, even—or perhaps especially—when you’re most busy. Maintaining relationships can’t wait for a better time, because now is the best time to do it.