Networking can be terrifying. The idea of striking up an unsolicited conversation in hopes of ultimately building a professional relationship with a stranger who may be able to help advance your career… whew! It can be daunting, to say the least. But, there is another type of networking which may be much more powerful and is surely significantly less anxiety inducing than event networking.
Every great professional opportunity I’ve had was gained through one-on-one networking. Scheduling a quick coffee, lunch, or even grabbing a brew with another professional sets the tone for meaningful conversations and will prove more valuable than conversations at busy business card mixers.
Anyone can set up and go to a coffee chat, but it takes an adept networker to turn that connection into a lasting relationship. And that is where the magic happens. Whether you are looking for a new gig or to build partnerships at work, here are my top 8 tips for successful networking:
Have an objective:
What’s the point of this meeting? What do you want to get out of it? (Hint: the answer should not be a job) Define your objective before the meeting, and start the conversation by stating that reason upfront. “I asked you to coffee today because I’m interested in the Ad Tech and wanted to learn about your experiences working in this industry,” for example, frames the conversation and let’s the other person know how they can be helpful.
Do your research:
I can’t stress this enough. Use LinkedIn and Twitter to get a sense of who this person is, what their job entails, what their company does, where they used to work, and what their interests are. Do a quick Google search– are they featured in any blog posts or articles? By setting this foundation, you’ll be able to jump over the more obvious questions and dig deeper with intelligent talking points and thoughtful follow-ups. You may discover shared interests that you can bond over: maybe they share your passion for cooking, or were also on their college’s rowing team. Remember: they’re doing you a favor by giving you their time–show you value it by getting right to the meat of the conversation.
I touched on this already, but it deserves a point all to itself. Come up with questions you’re planning to ask during your meeting, write them down, and bring them with you. It’s helpful to know you have them on hand in case you hit a lull and aren’t sure where to take the conversation. This would be poor form on a first date; luckily, it’s 100% okay for a networking meeting and shows you’re serious about making the most of your time and theirs.
Many questions will be aimed at getting the person to talk about themselves, but you should include a few asks for advice. “I saw you worked as a recruiter before moving into web design. How did you go about that transition?” or “What do you most enjoy about your role?” are good starting points. “What skills would you recommend I build to transition into XX role?” and “What are the top characteristics you would look for in a candidate for XX?” can help you to gain insights specific to your own career goals.
Use proper etiquette:
If this sounds antiquated to you, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. While the startup world is known for fostering a casual culture, that does not mean that the old rules don’t apply. Do not be late. Aim to be 10-15 minutes early so that you arrive before the person you’re meeting. If you absolutely must be late, email a quick heads-up, offering to reschedule if they prefer. Other key etiquette pointers: stand when you introduce yourself, give a strong handshake, make eye contact, don’t chew gum, and dress appropriately (no need to wear a suit in startup world, but don’t show up in sweats either). These details may seem trivial, but first impressions are everything.
Bring a notebook along and use it to jot down key points throughout your meeting. This shows that you take this meeting as a serious opportunity to learn, and will help you remember the important pieces of your conversation that you’ll want to follow-up on.
Find out how you can help:
Ask not what the person you’re meeting with can do for you, ask what you can do for that person! Sorry for the horrendous adaptation, JFK… but I am serious. The best networkers are constantly thinking of ways in which they can help others. Maybe you have a contact that would be useful for the other person and can make and introduction. Or, perhaps you recently read an article on a subject they would find interesting — send it along! Make yourself useful to the people you’re meeting with and you will cultivate serendipity.
Pro tip: If you are hoping to land a job, try to identify the internal pain points their company is facing and show how you would be an asset in resolving these issues. This strategy takes time to build towards, and should not be attempted in the first meeting.
Ask for connections:
Before you wrap up the meeting, be sure to ask if they have anyone else in their network they think you should connect with. Some people will rattle off a few names of people that may be willing to connect (be sure to write these down so you can follow-up for intros), other will have to think about it. One way or another, this question helps to create a spiral effect so that your network continues to build and expand.
Give thanks, and follow-up:
Perhaps the most important part of networking is what happens AFTER the meeting. As I said before, anyone can go to a meeting, but not everyone can turn a meeting into a meaningful and lasting contact. The key to making that happen is in the follow-up. Send a thank you email as soon as possible (the day of is best). In addition to thanking them for their time, be sure to reference specific things you discussed or key takeaways you appreciated. Remember the introductions they said they’d make? It’s up to you to hold them to it, so be sure to follow-up.
Finally, make sure your communication doesn’t end after the initial thank you email. If they make a connection for you, send them a quick note after you meet with that person to let them know how it went. Keep them up-to-date as you move forward with your networking or job search efforts. Checking-in from time to time will keep your name top of mind which may lead to an opportunity down the line if they hear of something that may be of interest to you.
I want to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Steve Jobs because I know that the process of networking can sometimes feel like a fruitless chase:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
One-on-one networking, when done right, can be extremely time consuming. Not every meeting will lead somewhere, but that’s okay. You only need one meeting to incite a great new opportunity, and I guarantee — if you’re persistent, you’ll be able to connect the dots looking backwards.
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