Question: I know networking is important but I’ve never really liked it, and now during the pandemic it seems even harder. What should I do?
Answer: Redefine “networking” to “connecting,” enhancing existing relationships and forming new ones.
This isn’t merely semantics. Words express our feelings and for many people, the term “networking” carries baggage.
See for yourself: What emotions arise when you think about making networking outreaches on the phone, via email or at professional events? Based on your question, I’m thinking anxiety, boredom or dread come to mind. You might fear rejection or feel like you’re imposing.
That’s because networking has acquired a transactional vibe that it doesn’t necessarily deserve. The essence of networking is to meet others and share your stories.
Particularly when you are not in job transition or have a specific need, networking is about connecting to others, sharing information between you, and setting both of you up for more success. It’s not “what can you do for me now.”
Perhaps you don’t manage networking conversations well, or your meetings just don’t seem productive.
As with any meeting, a better outcome is achieved when you go in prepared. This is where the "20-Minute Networking Meeting" books, written by Marcia Ballinger with Nathan Perez, can help you.
The first lesson is right there in the title. Networking meetings can — and should — be brief. Twenty minutes is a respectful and energizing amount of time.
Go in organized, using Ballinger’s framework to get you started. There is one aspect that I found particularly valuable for preparing for almost any situation: The five questions. With this approach, you will spend time preparing three questions tailored to the person you are speaking with. Follow this with “can you recommend someone else should I speak with?” and “how can I help you?”
You can prepare this way for any situation. Imagine attending a conference (looking forward to post-COVID days). Know your three questions in case you meet someone from a company you are interested in or who is in a role you’re intrigued by. You will be prepared and will also make a good impression.
This works well for networking with folks within your company, too. If you are having a virtual coffee get-together, it will give you conversation fodder that encourages professional connections to form. It’s good for you and for your company.
Now let’s go back to concerns about reaching out. In the best of times, people like to help others, and it’s flattering to be approached. Sure, some people might not be responsive, but they’re a minority.
In my experience, this is even more true now. People feel isolated, working from home in many cases and socially distanced from people around them. There’s a human aspect of connecting now that is even more needed.
You will notice this when you connect with people from your past. You will find that an invitation like, “I’m taking time to reach out to old friends and colleagues” and asking for 20 minutes will be appreciated.
Finally, pay it forward. Say yes when you are approached and help when you can, completing the networking circle.