Build Your Professional Network Before You Need It
You know you need to do it and if you’re like most business owners (myself included), you don’t do nearly enough of it. But it’s hard enough to make time for everything that’s immediately important to your business – finding the extra time for mixers, meetups and other networking functions can be nearly impossible and the perceived lack of immediate ROI can make them feel like a complete waste of time.
But, while the return is not instantly realized or obvious, the benefits are very real, and your professional network is essential to survive and thrive in business today. As we’ve discussed before, it’s not who you are or even who you know – it’s who knows you that’s important.
But where do you begin networking?
How do you grow your network to where it’s a viable asset to your business?
There are a variety of places you can look for networking events, and truthfully they’re everywhere and not difficult to come by. Between LinkedIn groups, your local Chamber of Commerce, and organizations such as Network After Work and Local First, finding groups to join and events to attend is actually pretty easy. But once you’re in the door things get a little more challenging.
The key to networking successfully is to establish connections before you actually need them. This might sound daunting but there’s actually a trick to it that makes it quite easy once you get the hang of it.
Get your priorities straight.
I hate to say it like this, but most people go to networking events with self-serving intentions. They’re either individuals seeking employment, or they’re looking to change jobs, or they’re perhaps trying to connect with those that can help them move up in their companies. It’s also likely you will encounter business owners hoping to find new clients for their businesses.
Become a resource to your new network.
So how do you navigate an sea of people primarily focused on helping themselves? The trick is to be a resource. Here’s a few tips on how to make the most of your networking efforts:
Instead of going to events with the intention of handing out as many business cards as possible, arrive with the goal that you are going to learn about as many different people and their goals as you can. You won’t be able to help everyone you encounter of course – but over time you will gather a series of contacts. When you understand the needs of others, you can also figure out how you can help them.
When you demonstrate an ability to help them, they will be much more likely to reciprocate. For example, say you encounter a recent college graduate looking for his or her first full time job. Learn about them and their background. Figure out who in your network might have a need for their particular skillset or educational background. Or perhaps you encounter a person who is looking to branch out on their own. Perhaps you have someone you can connect them with who can help them along or at least transition into their new endeavors.
Arrive early – before the event starts if possible. If you are the first one there, all the better. Arriving early gives you an advantage. If you’ve ever attended an event and showed up to a full room where everyone is already seemingly engaged in conversation, you understand why this is important.
Dress professionally, even if the event is relatively casual. If you look like someone worth knowing, people will be more likely to engage.
Plan on doing a lot of listening, and bring a pen to take notes on the business cards you receive.
If possible, arrive with a buddy. One of the toughest things about networking events for many people is initiating conversation. So bring a friend and split up, and then when you see your ‘partner’ engaged in conversation, you can casually approach without the inherent awkwardness. If that isn’t an option, try to figure out who is going to be at the event and make contact with those you already know ahead of time. In fact, the more people you know, the easier this becomes.
Along these same lines, look at the list of attendees and see who you don’t know. Learn a little bit about them and see then you’ll have something to take about when you approach them.
And lastly, try not to spend too much time with people you already know.
What are your favorite tips for networking? Share them with us below!