How To Career Network In A Genuine Way

If you're a new business owner, it's vital that you do it. If you're looking for a new job, it behooves you to do it. And if you're a newly minted college graduate, ready to launch a career, you'll find direction if you do it. Whatever career juncture you find yourself, career networking can mean the difference between success and failure, fulfillment and floundering.

There's no one "right way" to network. Forbes notes that you can network by reaching out over social media, scheduling regular "meet and greet" coffee sessions, going to business and chamber of commerce events, and attending seminars and workshops, online and in-person. But there may be a "best way" to network: the "old-fashioned" way, which is face-to-face, the Small Business Administration says. Like other human relationships, networking by spending meaningful time in the presence of other people is essential to achieving your career goals. In addition, meeting face-to-face enhances your ability to "exchange knowledge and resources," take your career to the next step, and "foster friendships along the way," Forbes says.

Some people have tried to corrupt this notion by "working a room" and hurriedly passing out their business cards and then collecting cards from others. They don't seem to care who they connect with. However, a master networker knows that a little finesse can elevate the experience — and forge connections that can last a lifetime. This finesse starts with being genuine in word and deed. The following five tips should help.

Set goals and then map out a strategy

Realize from the start that you won't have time to attend every networking event, even if you want to. To make the most of your time, you must be selective. Begin by identifying your goals and then mapping out a networking strategy, the Small Business Administration says. For example, do you want to obtain a certain number of qualified leads every month? Are you interested in forming strategic alliances with like-minded business owners? Do you wish to find reliable vendors?

Once you specify your goals, it will be easier to devise a strategy for identifying and then meeting these people through networking. Basically, you want to go where they are. It will take time to fill in all the blanks before you through research. Keep an obvious tactic in mind: if you get stuck, call these people directly and simply ask them. Many people have walked in your shoes and so should be happy to assist you.

Strive for quality, not quantity

It's true that some business people gauge networking success by the thickness of the stack of business cards their sales reps show them the next day. If you work for someone like this, you'll be hard-pressed to buck their system.

But Forbes urges people to consider the wisdom in making one quality connection rather than 20 superficial ones — the one person you may do business with for a decade rather than 20 people you may never speak to again. Plus, that one quality connection can refer you to other people they know, compounding the value of that single connection. At some point, many business people realize the difference between making contacts and building relationships. You can get ahead of this learning curve by emphasizing quality over quantity.

Find common ground – then listen

They may not like to admit it, but many people enjoy talking about themselves. Knowing this, you shouldn't have any difficulty finding common ground; all you have to do is ask some general questions (via BetterUp). You can prepare five questions; it's likely you won't get past the first two before you inflate a full-blown conversation: What do you do for a living? What's your favorite restaurant around here? (And a question that can't miss:) Where did you go to school?

Next to talking, people appreciate being listened to. And the proof lies in making eye contact and asking follow-up questions, which the Association for Psychological Science says "increases people's positive impressions."

Offer your expertise

As you go about asking questions and follow-up questions, stay alert to opportunities where you can offer your help or expertise, Forbes suggests. And if you can't personally step up, try to offer the name of someone who can. This is one of the value propositions of networking in the first place: developing a trusted network of information and resources. (In time, you'll find that this street flows two ways.)

Casting yourself as a caring problem-solver is one of the surest ways to network with purpose and further delineate contacts from relationships.

Follow up – and stay in touch

It may sound like the most obvious step of all, but you may be surprised by how many people attend networking events and then fail to follow up. No matter how friendly the conversation, they don't take the time to send an "it was nice to meet you" email, call to extend an invitation for coffee, or deliver promised information.

Whether you've just met one person or 20, the U.S. Small Business Administration recommends following up within 48 hours — and 24 hours is better. It takes time to make follow-up gestures, but the sooner you get used to carving out time in your schedule to do so, the sooner it will become rote. Unlike other people, you won't complain about doing it; you'll instinctively know that it's the right and polite thing to do. And you'll do it faithfully. Follow-up will set you apart from others, which is exactly where you want to be.