When I was teaching in the USA, the message I picked up was that networking is a kind of vitamin for careers: vitamin R, where the "R" stands for relations. Students at my university attended workshops teaching them the basics of effective networking, and in my view it should be a compulsory part of education everywhere.
However, with the introduction of social media, things have moved on. Some would argue that having a thousand followers on Facebook means having no friends, but it all depends on what your needs are.
Quantitative networking is certainly relevant for me, because in my line of work I seek to reach out to many - not just selected friends. I raise my profile by doing conference speeches for often quite large audiences, write blogs and articles, and of course accept most invitations for LinkedIn.
This is only one form of networking, and admittedly it is not the most important one in the context of careers. Qualitative networks are much more relevant.
Qualitative networking is a two-way street intended to create a lasting impression and lead to a relationship. Whether you are online, at a large reception, or at an intimate dinner party, you will be lucky if a few people remember who you were. The trick is to make a memorable - and ideally favourable - impression.
Bland is bad when it comes to networking. Some people have the advantage of a striking or strong physical feature, such as flaming red hair or a big nose; contrary to popular belief, these can be more useful than being good looking. Making an impression can equally be helped by dressing a bit out of the norm, but overdoing it shouts 'look at me' and can put anyone off.
Saying something interesting about yourself in your introduction is more effective than visual aids - but again, avoid the temptation to show off. Having something distinct to say about you, your work, or your life will make it more likely that you will be remembered for the right reasons.
When it comes to professional networking, only novices fall for bluff. Here is a simple rule of thumb: if someone makes it immediately clear to you how powerful and well-connected they are, this contact is probably a waste of time. Anyone who is really a mover and shaker will not bother to spell that out - they know that you are either smart enough to find that out yourself, or you are not relevant to them.
When someone is really powerful, he or she can afford to be modest, so it is worth googling the business cards or contacts you collected. If there is someone who might be valuable in the future, follow the meeting up with a short, friendly email - it is useful to be in someone's email system, and if you do need to contact them again, you can refer back to that first email so they know you are not a complete stranger.
Making an initial impression is the first stage; the next is building up a good rapport, which normally means finding out what you have in common. This is the essential basis of any relationship in qualitative networking. Of course having the same hobbies of perhaps having gone to the same school would help here, but ultimately any common ground will do.
The next and most important stage is to consider how you might be able to help them. The real secret of networking is not what you can get out of it, but what you can contribute. Often, the most effective contribution is to introduce one person to another because you believe they might have something to offer each other.
This matchmaking ability moves you to the centre stage of professional networking. The top networkers are kingpins, putting time and effort into making themselves useful and thus moving themselves to a pivotal position.
This is the real magic of networking at its highest level: the more you give, the more you receive in return. It is like investing money and getting it back with considerable profit.
But you do need to be smart. In any network, you have people who want to take advantage of you. They believe networking is a matter of personal gain, rather than creating long-term relationships. These are the people you politely need to ignore. Some people use ratings, developing A list and B list contacts. It is important to learn who will waste your time, or worse, could damage your reputation.
Some people's view of how professional networks work is too short term: they focus on those who are on the up, and walk away from those going down. However, reaching out to someone who is having a setback is of great importance, because it will be valued. When fortune changes and they are on the up again, as so often happens, they will remember who stayed with them and who did not. Networking is about generosity, not about greed: don't forget the power of compassion.
High level and effective modern professional networks are usually global affairs. That requires cultural insight, since different cultures can operate very differently in terms of professional relationships. Finding out what is considered appropriate is part of the fun of networking, as it is unlikely you can learn that by attending a workshop or reading an article.
Sophisticated networking is, above all, a matter of practice. Building up and maintaining a professional network is time consuming, never-ending, but also extremely rewarding.
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