People tell me that I am a great networker—usually followed by, “How do you do it?”
Although networking is a daunting chore to some, for others of us it’s second nature. Maybe because I am a curious soul and genuinely love learning about people, networking for me doesn’t come with anxieties—only tremendous insights and information.
Networking is about listening. In order to cultivate a genuine and productive relationship, you must pay attention to what is being shared by the other person: not only in your conversations, but also on social media and beyond.
Your personal board is a network of individuals that support your vision. It’s important that your board includes a good mix of champions and mentors.
Many people view networking as a career search tool, but it really is a career growth tool. Nonprofit thought leader and author Beth Kanter shares great advice from this perspective on her blog. Here are my go-to strategies for networking, drawn from her writing and from my own experience:
Personalize your initial contact. Before you reach out to someone, do your research in order to be personal when you ask for their time. You might realize that you both love to kayak, for example, and that can be part of your introduction.
Be specific about what you need. I really dislike it when someone cold-calls me and asks to meet, without giving any context. Being transparent helps both parties prepare for a productive conversation. If I know in advance that someone is looking for a volunteer program, then I can pull organizations together before we meet.
Focus on adding value. When you meet with a contact, demonstrate your value to them and ask what you can do for them in the future. It warms my heart when someone who is networking with me asks, “How can I be helpful to you?” Maybe I don’t have an answer at that moment, but when a need arises, I know who to call.
Remember touches without asks. It is important to make touchpoints with individuals in your network when you don’t need something from them. Wish them a happy birthday. Congratulate them on their anniversary. Listen to their conversations on social media and engage with them.
Be a conference commando. Before I attend a conference, I check out the attendee list and reach out to individuals in advance to invite them for a chat over coffee. (And if I am reaching out, I always treat.) I get specific and make sure that they know what I want to discuss, so the conversation is beneficial and efficient for us both. After the conference, I make sure to follow up via LinkedIn or email.
Create a personal board. A personal board is a network of individuals that support your vision, that you can turn to when you need honest advice in your career. While your personal board will evolve and change membership over time, it’s important that it always includes a good mix of champions and mentors.
A mentor is someone who speaks to you, giving advice and expertise. A champion is someone who speaks about you—the person in your organization or your field that shares out your successes.
Mistakes to learn from: I once asked a senior leader in my organization to be a mentor. This was not strategic because, when she would tell colleagues that she was mentoring me, it gave a subtle impression that I was not 100% expert—still using “training wheels,” so to speak. In hindsight, I should have asked an external colleague to be a mentor.
Diversify your network. Is your network too small? Are you connected with people from different industries or walks of life? I learn all the time from individuals outside the nonprofit and philanthropy world, who look at things through a different lens. You can use social media to find people by doing a search of your profession or your region, and checking out who pops up as admirable or influential—while living a life that’s different from yours.
Ready to get your networking started, but need some help getting started? Here are my first steps for you:
Identify your professional career goals over the next 12 months.
Brainstorm and research a list of people who could help you reach them.
Choose four people, and reach out to them to start a conversation.