Networking for the non-networker

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By Robert Half Management Resources

Networking — does the thought of it make you uneasy? If you’re the type of person who’d rather spend time in the dentist’s chair than meet new people, you’re not alone. For many, networking is a nerve-wracking experience. But establishing a web of professional contacts is one of the best ways to find new employment opportunities. And the individuals with whom you interact can often provide valuable career advice. So, don’t deprive yourself of one of the most effective tools for success by standing in the corner at the events you attend. Instead, consider these tips to increase your comfort level when faced with a roomful of strangers.

Find a mentor
Like other aspects of your career, a skilled mentor can help you learn the ropes. Chances are you already know someone who enjoys meeting new people. Tag along the next time he or she attends a networking function and observe how your colleague approaches people and keeps conversations going, so you can do the same. Your mentor can also introduce you to other professionals and serve as a go-between so that it’s easier for you to meet new contacts.

Practice your approach
As helpful as your mentor might be, you’ll eventually need to set out on your own. Ease your anxiety by first discussing your professional goals with people you already know, such as family, friends and neighbours. Practice and refine your approach with them. Introduce yourself as if it were the first time you’re meeting them, and rehearse a 30-second summary that describes who you are, what you do and what your career goals are. Your friends and family may also point you to others who could end up becoming valuable professional contacts.
When you feel you’re ready, begin networking at events you regularly attend, such as birthday parties, night school courses, social clubs, fitness classes or PTA meetings. A function doesn’t need to be formal or business-related to provide you with exposure to potential contacts.
One of the best ways to initiate a conversation is with small talk. Although opening lines like “Nice weather, isn’t it?” and “The chicken is delicious” sound clichéd, they’re great for breaking the ice. Transition to a more substantive subject using the 30-second summary you’ve practiced.

Set goals
Networking is a lifelong process that you’ll need to continually develop. A good way to ensure your steady progress is to set weekly or monthly networking-related goals. Start small — maybe you’d like to meet five new contacts during the next two weeks or attend two networking functions this month. As you become more comfortable, gradually set higher targets. Treat yourself to a reward for each goal you reach to keep your motivation high.
Another tactic involves keeping note of networking strategies that have been particularly successful — emailing contacts articles of interest, for instance — and those that have been less effective. This will help you refine your techniques.
You might also consider taking a networking class, either at a local business school or through an organization like Toastmasters International, so you can overcome any lingering concerns.

Look on the bright side
If at any time you feel your old networking fears resurfacing as you progress, focus on the many positive aspects of the process:

  • People want your help. Your advice, expertise and list of contacts are unique and help many other professionals.
  • You need only one connection. A single quality contact can introduce you to several others.
  • You can network anywhere. Try striking up a conversation at the grocery store, in line at the bank or with the person sitting next to you on a flight.
  • Networking is quick and easy. It doesn’t require constant communication, just consistent follow up. Try arranging a lunch date, writing letters or sending emails to keep in contact with members of your network.

No matter how committed you are to improving your networking skills, change won’t occur overnight. In fact, you will probably be setting yourself up for failure if you expect to be the world’s best networker within a week. Becoming an effective networker is a gradual process, but it’s still one that can be mastered with relative ease. By identifying a mentor, having the courage to venture out on your own and continually improving your skills, you’ll view your next networking function with anticipation instead of anxiety.

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