By Porter Gale
When I was college-aged, my world was small. I wanted to breakout, but I had an overwhelming fear of meeting new people and always felt inadequate in some way.
Academically, I did okay, but I wasn’t a superstar student. I wasn’t an athlete. I wasn’t skinny. I wasn’t Jewish. I wasn’t Catholic. I didn’t know where or how to fit in. The idea that my peers might support me or that I could support them in the future didn’t occur to me. Boy, I was wrong.
In my twenties, I’d stare glassy-eyed at Lifetime docudramas for hours on end, a cone of Ben & Jerry’s in one hand and a cocktail in the other. I used to hide behind a wineglass if I didn’t feel perfect. But then I began to change my life. When I hit thirty, I started first to identify the habits of mind and actions that were holding me back. With self-reflection, practice, and focus, I learned how to authentically connect and I learned how to network – and it changed my life. Because of the lessons I’ve learned, I have more friends than I ever imagined possible. I have thousands of Twitter followers and unlimited business contacts, and I’m more productive than ever. What happened? I turned my weaknesses into opportunities for personal growth. I built my personal brand and started sharing my opinions. I now understand and fully realize the power of relationships and I’d like to share some tips with you.
Determine Your Networking Goal
The first step in effective networking is to determine your networking goal. Are you trying to secure a new position, meet new people or adapt to a new geographic location? I suggest writing down a succinct goal or purpose to guide your efforts. Jana Rich, a senior executive Russell Reynolds, a leading executive search firm agrees, “Most important is asking what is the goal of the networking? Do you want to connect with like-minded people on a particular subject or business initiative? Is there something in your current role that is going to be enhanced if you have connections? Be really clear in what your objective is,” or the result will be ineffective. Ms. Rich also believes that building networks slowly, cautiously, with endorsements and keeping them relatively small and selective is key. “Ask yourself this: Who are the people in a particular arena you respect the most? Who do they respect and who will they introduce you to?”
Don’t Wait: Start Now
The most important piece of advice I would give to a college-aged person is start now. Regardless of if you’re a college graduate or not, now is the time to start building your network. Randy Harrison, a marketing communications professor at Emerson College agrees, “Job hunting begins with networking, interning, having a part-time job in a field of interest prior to graduation. Don’t wait until the last minute!” He added, “Go to mixers, join professional organizations, have information interviews with executives in a field of interest or ask them if you can shadow them for a week during spring break instead of going on vacation.” Mr. Harrison feels so strongly about networking that he made Your Network Is Your Net Worth required reading for his students.
Bill Beer, a partner in the executive recruiting firm Daversa Partners said, “My network is my only asset, so it is redundant to say networking is actually my job.” Moreover Beer added, “It is the lifeblood of any job,” he said. “I don’t care what your skill or expertise is. As much as the world is changing, who you know still drives more of how business gets done, how life gets done, than anything else.”
He sees that truism play out every day, particularly in venture-backed tech companies that will not gamble on an unknown but will reward talent that has grown within the industry, people with whom a relationship exists, people who come highly recommended. Look no further than LinkedIn, a company with a staggering $18 billion in market capitalization, as evidence that a connected company is more efficient, will grow and thrive more than those that are not, and that networking is a vital business organ.
Said Beer, “An $18 billion market cap. It’s networking. It is a business-networking tool. Is that not all the proof you need?”
Understand That Companies Are Using Internal Referrals
It’s also important that more and more companies are giving incentives to employees to refer new talent. Bill Beer added, “Knowing the right people who work at the right companies gives you a better chance to get in there” because those friends have an incentive to recruit you. In his own business Beer routinely keeps in touch with his contacts, and whether or not that leads to a connection taking a job he is suggesting it keeps a relationship in tune and may lead to a referral or some other benefit. “That is the whole nature of the networking chain,” he said.=
Build Your Online Reputation
When you’re looking to make connections, your online reputation matters. People interviewing for a job may be surprised to learn that employers are taking a look at their LinkedIn data to find common connections and without telling the candidates they call those people asking questions. “It just makes it easier than it used to be,” said Beer. “But that is what people do. Nobody wants to hire an unknown quantity in a world where everything is known.”
Beer added, “If you burn bridges, it catches up with you,” he said. “There is no way to hide in this day and age where everything is exposed. You can do a Google search on you or I and if there is inflammatory content about either of us out there then somebody is going to find it in seconds.” It is just as true that “who you know” is, as Beer puts it, “age-old business 101.” He added, “That dictates what opportunities get presented.” Young college graduates coming out of top-tier schools will have a leg up, but many will be relying on family relationships or a professor’s recommendation, while the network begins to be built. Beer has 2,000 connections on LinkedIn. At 22 he had two -- or would have had two had there been LinkedIn.
“You have to start somewhere, unless you are given a silver spoon and you have an adult sponsor who is going to help you get that first job at Goldman Sachs of McKinsey & Company or Google or whatever it might be. You work. You gain promotion through merit. You continue to expand your horizon. Once you are in, now your network is everybody you work with. And every month people are leaving to go to other companies and you manage that network, you manage your relationships, if it is giving favors and returning favors. It is doing those little things so that when you need something from somebody else” it is delivered. “You are smart about when you call in favors, and you make sure you pay back in return,” he said.
Focus On Giving Back & Helping Others
It’s true as Bill mentioned, small actions can have a large impact. If you put giving back and helping others at the center of your networking and relationship building, you are likely to have more impactful and stronger relationships, among other benefits. By seeing networking as an opportunity to help people, I’ve discovered that these actions change me for the better and help me to strengthen relationship. Jana Rich agrees, “It’s not just about making money, it is about something bigger, and all of a sudden you know your colleagues in a deeper way, too. It is creating a deeper sense of connectedness, and workers will return to the office with an energy that benefits them and the company.
Randy Harrison, of Emerson College shared a powerful story about networking and giving back. One of his freshman students, and a couple of his peers, decided to take action after the recent Marathon Bombing. “They came up with the concept Boston Strong… to produce T-Shirts and take online orders. They put the message out on Facebook and Twitter. The result: tens of thousands of t-shirts and over $800,000 raised for the One Fund,” he said. “Their quick action and leveraging their network with a compelling message and solution was remarkable. And their network took off in unexpected ways... These students made no money and simply, as it was put to me "needed to do something to help" after this terrible incident. My guess is they will have no problem adding value in the marketplace and being compensated accordingly moving forward.”
Go To Conferences & Meet Ups
Events like “meet-ups,” common in high tech, and conferences accommodate networking as well. At events, ask smart questions during a talk, then after the speech go up to the presenter and say, “I was the one who asked you about …” and swap business cards. Most likely, they will remember if contact them because you stood out. And remember, many the rules of traditional career development no longer apply, so be respectful to all contacts you meet. Bill Beer added, “Twenty-somethings are founding companies that are turning into billion-dollar ventures, so your opportunities are not bound by the old rules of ‘know your place.’ I don’t think that applies. Especially in this industry, where twenty-something-year-old kids are dictating a big part of how this industry works.”
So regardless of if you’re working toward a college degree or not, today is the time to start building your network. Set a goal, determine your passion and purpose, focus on helping other, use technology to accelerate your efforts and actively attend networking events. In today’s new global economy, Your Network Is Your Net Worth so don’t let your social capital lie dormant. Get out there. Start connecting and go for your dreams. If you have networking questions or tips you’d like to share, feel free to reach out at @portergale or firstname.lastname@example.org.