I recently read the blog on networking by my colleague on the PRWeek Mentoring Project Debbie Spitz, and found myself nodding along to a lot of the points she raised. I used to be one of those people who found it difficult to see the value of investing time in networking, let alone believe that it could further my career.
I could understand why business leaders extolled its benefits, but there’s no escaping how awkward and superficial networking can feel.
A bit like a bad blind date, the first part of the night is spent scanning the room to catch someone’s eye before making uneasy introductions. You then run through the usual opening questions and if it’s going well, exchange contact details with a promise to keep in touch. And then, in most cases, nothing happens. You either fail to make contact or things fizzle out after a few initial exchanges.
I took a (small, non-scientific) straw poll amongst fellow PRs, and the resounding consensus is that we know it's something we have to do but most of us dread it. It feels forced and few feel like they’re getting something worthwhile out of it. The problem however, is the more senior you become, the more it's expected of you. It’s something we simply need to become more comfortable with.
Debbie set the challenge to see if we could get her seven tips up to 20, here’s what I would add:
· Be selective – Time’s precious and you can’t attend every event. Pick the ones that the people you want to target are most likely to attend.
· Do your research – Most events will provide a guest list, or at least one from the last event. This way you can decide who you want to approach and research things to bring up in conversation e.g. "I saw your campaign for X and thought Y was interesting...." It may feel contrived but at least it gives you an opening gambit.
· Be brave and go alone – If you go to a networking event with a friend, the likelihood is that you’ll just end up talking to them. Lose the wingman.
· Do it regularly – A friend of mine has challenged herself to attend at least one work–related event each week. At first I thought it sounded ridiculous but I can now see why; the more often you do anything, the easier it becomes. The other perk is that you’ll tend to see familiar faces, which helps build a rapport.
· It’s about quality not quantity – not all contacts are created equal and the truth is you don’t need a network the size of an army. Focus on a core group that can help achieve your goal.
· Start early – part of the reason networking doesn’t come easily is because many of us have only started doing it relatively late in our careers. Historically, networking took place at ‘boys club’ style golf days or events only senior management were invited to. We should be encouraging juniors on our teams to start early so networking doesn’t become so daunting.
· Use your network – once you’ve gone to the trouble of making new contacts, don’t be afraid to call on them. Send them your CV if you’re looking for a new role, ask advice if you’re working on a project they specialise in. Nobody likes to feel like they’re imposing, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
So, the next time you have to attend a networking event, put the cynical thoughts to one side. If you ever need motivation to keep persevering, remember that rather annoyingly there is some truth in the old adage ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’