Investing in your network is investing in yourself.

Fair or not, personal connections matter. People like to help someone they know and they like to know the person they’re helping (especially if they’re going to stick their neck out for you). The last time I applied for a job posting I randomly found on the Internet was 10 years ago. It was a part-time job in college as a Customer Service Representative at Ecolab. Since then, all of my jobs have been obtained through personal connections.

I’m sure that makes me sound very lucky or like  someone who is a natural at networking, but the truth is there is nothing out of the ordinary about me. In fact, I don’t like chitchat and I get nervous when approaching people I don’t know. That is why I work in Operations and not Sales. But, you get creative really fast when you’re a college kid staring down $50k of student loans (and that is just from my undergraduate – what a lucky guy my husband is!). I started seeking out people for advice because I wanted to know one thing: How do I get a job after graduation so I can pay off my student loans? What I’ve discovered since then is networking is actually very easy and anyone can do it well if they just stick to the basics.

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Rule #1: One-on-one is the most effective way to build a strong network.

I’ve never had any luck at the large events where you wonder if it’s a networking event or cattle call; and you walk away with 15 business cards but no real connections. It is better to meet with someone one-on-one because it is more personal. You don’t have to worry about being interrupted by anyone else and you can pick the time and location. You will also feel more comfortable talking about your experience and asking questions, and they will feel more comfortable providing honest feedback and advice.

Rule #2: You need to ask for a meeting in order for it to happen.

Simple, right? Wrong. This is the part people seem to dread the most, but if you don’t ask it won’t happen. Sometimes people will say no, but most people will say yes because it’s flattering to be asked for advice.

How do you set up the meeting? You figure out if you want to target someone at a certain company, in a certain field, with a certain degree, etc. Then, you find someone to introduce you. That could be a friend, family member, old classmate, or even a Recruiter. Email introductions allow you to think about your wording when you introduce yourself so this is the method I usually prefer.

Rule #3: Don’t only network when you need it.

You should always strive to make personal connections for a few reasons: it’s a good way to learn about different areas in business, new people bring new perspectives to your life, and it makes it easier when you do need help. I’ve found new opportunities through old classmates, people I’ve met at trainings, and casual work acquaintances. I didn’t intend to meet these people because I thought they might be able to help me at some point. I met them because I was genuinely interested in learning about what they do and where they work. In most cases, they reached out to me when they learned about an opening they thought I’d like. If you only network when you need it, you risk missing out on bigger opportunities that might come up when you least expect it.

Rule #4: Stick to the purpose of the meeting and stay positive.

Meeting new people to learn about their job or company isn’t the time to trash your employer or boss. It isn’t even the right time to dwell on personal struggles too much. The purpose of your meeting should be to learn about the person you’re meeting with, share your story, and get advice. You want to give the impression that you have a good outlook on life, have turned your life challenges into motivation, and are easy to get along with.

Rule #5: Return the favor.

If someone wants to meet with you about your job or company, return the favor. It’s only polite.

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In addition to these basic rules, you should follow standard etiquette you’d follow with an interview: be on time, send a follow-up thank you email for their time, be prepared to talk about yourself, and ask good questions. Networking or informational interviews shouldn’t feel like an interview, but it is respectful to be prepared with questions and what you want to get out of the meeting.

On the flip side, networking is also a good way for you to see if a company culture, department or boss is someone you wouldn’t want to work with. When I was finishing my MBA, I met with a guy in Strategic Business Development at a large local company for coffee to learn about his job. The guy was 15 minutes late and had that slicked-back hair look about him. He referred to my experience as “back-office” and didn’t seem engaged in anything I had to say. I was so put off by him that I didn’t even apply for the job.

What have you found to be the most effective networking approach? Do you have an awkward networking story you’d like to share?

One response to “Investing in your network is investing in yourself.

  1. Anna, this is hitting close to home for me being back in school! I haven’t yet started to do a lot of networking, because I think it IS difficult to know who to talk to and how to approach people. I might try to join an organization of professional writers (something that was suggested in a class) just to rub virtual elbows with some people that are in the field. Thanks for the great post!

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