My first attempt at networking was awful. Per my dad’s suggestion, I reached out to the girlfriend of a guy he worked with that was in the industry I was contemplating and asked to meet for coffee. I’d never been more uncomfortable. She was painfully shy and kind of hated her job, and I was clueless, so we spent most of the time talking about the difference between lattes and cappuccinos (spoiler alert: milk content). I walked away with a few random suggestions on resume formatting, some visible pit stains and a vow that I was never going to be doing that again.
Twelve years later, networking has become my most powerful skill. I know a lot of people who say “I hate networking” or “I have no idea how to network”. People get all worked up over the concept of networking as if it’s some sort of fancy affair where you have to wear a suit, prepare an elevator speech and come armed with a fistful of business cards. True, some networking is more formal than others, but at it’s core it’s really just getting to know different people. Like dating, but (hopefully) without the pressure of anyone seeing you naked.
First, it’s really important to understand the essence of networking - it’s not about asking for a/the job. Just like you shouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, you don’t go into any networking scenario with the idea that you’ll walk away with a job lead/offer. You’re there to get to know them, what they do, what you have in common and who they know. You may just come home with a business card or in my case, an uncomfortable story to tell later. Either way, it’s a contact. Add it to your database and keep in touch every now and then.
Also, don’t wait until you’re in desperate need of a job to start networking. Again, just like dating, your desperation has a scent and it adds way too much pressure to not only the situation but to the person you’re meeting with, which is unfair. Instead, start networking while you are professionally stable. And keep the focus off of you - think of ways you can help or support them and they’ll definitely remember you when the time is right.
There are best practices to get you started and plenty of events and organizations to join, but the best networkers I know keep it casual and do it in a way that best fits them. If the thought of attending a large networking event makes you sweat profusely, then keep it one on one. The beauty of networking is it can be just about anything you want it to be. And it doesn’t have to start with a stranger. You can start by having lunch with your mom, uncle, brother, best friend - anyone you’re most comfortable with. Ask for a recommendation on who to meet with next and watch it snowball from there.
Lastly, embrace the initial discomfort. Writing that first email or meeting for that first coffee/lunch/drink/whatever is probably going to be super awkward. But the good news is, most of us have all been there and know how tough is it to take that first step, and I promise it won’t be a life disaster. Just be authentic, confident and maybe put on some extra deodorant.