Networking can be accomplished with anyone, anywhere—events, conferences, the gym, on a mountain, you name it. (I once worked with someone who was known for bringing in top employees from all over, including people he met on the ski slopes!)
People network to help grow their personal and business relationships. When it comes to networking, people are everything. Vinod Khosla is known for saying, “The team you build is the company you build.” While that’s true for companies, it’s just as true in every other aspect of your life. Think about any major decision you made recently. You probably leaned on people you know to help you think through the decision. They may have even helped you get what you wanted in a way you couldn’t have done alone. Humans are social by nature, and that means relationships are core to everything you do, even just having fun.
You may think that because humans are social by nature, we don’t need to develop networking skills. But that’s not true. Without networking skills, you’ll likely end up on one of two ends. You may be a passive participant in your life, where the only relationships you have are the ones that others have decided they want to have with you. You may also be that person we all know who only talks to you when they want something from you, and perhaps that’s to join their next multi-level marketing scheme or maybe buy their non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
Networking is about making and maintaining relationships, and it's important to learn how to network online and offline. Networking requires new skills because we’re not used to maintaining more relationships than we have in our core tribe. This is often known as Dunbar’s number, which suggests we can only maintain roughly 150 relationships. We reach that number pretty quickly when you think about everyone you know from the neighborhood you grew up in, went to school with, and the past couple of jobs you’ve had. In addition to the 150-person limit, many of us grow up learning that we shouldn’t talk to people we don’t know. So, we shy away from increasing the number of people we know—our network.
Networking will help every aspect of your professional career. Learning to connect with other people in the industry or colleagues within your own company will help you do your current job better. You’ll be able to jump on industry trends early. You’ll be able to leverage the learnings of others, and you’ll be able to get work done more effectively when you’ve built relationships with people you currently work with. Networking is also an essential tool for job seekers. All those connections you’ve created throughout your industry will be able to help with introductions to their connections at companies you’re interested in or help you land at their own company.
The art of networking is a skill that develops over time, and—like all skills—it requires deliberate practice. This means you start with a clear understanding of the components required to be great at that skill, you take time to practice those specifically, you are aware of which skills you’re weak on, and then focus on specifically improving those areas. Then, you practice regularly over time. Doing this will help you develop a strong networking skillset that will allow you to make a great first impression and will establish meaningful business and personal connections.
Whether you’re looking to develop new skills or improve your current skill set, here are 15 components to focus on in your deliberate networking practice to help you grow your network and your career.
In a world where you can play short-term or long-term games, networking only works as a long-term game. Your focus shouldn’t only be about adding another name to your contact list. It’s about creating long-lasting relationships that you maintain throughout your career.
The time to start networking is now, whether you’re still in school, or a recent grad, or well into your career. Then you play the long game—continue to keep networking in your stack. For as long as you are working, there is always something to be gained from your network, whether that’s job opportunities, knowledge, or a source of advice. Your network will follow you throughout your career, so don’t forget to nurture it.
Your network is about building business relationships. That starts with truly being interested in the other person. Every person you meet has something truly great and interesting about them. If you need some inspiration yourself, check out Humans of New York. See it as your goal to find out one thing about the person you meet.
It can be easy to see someone’s title or company and assume they have all of the answers or information we need, but going in with expectations can lead to pigeonholing a conversation before it’s even begun. Go in with an open mind and let the conversation flow where it naturally goes. Not only will this help create a more organic and natural connection, but you won’t miss out on potential opportunities because you tried to control the conversation.
It’s important to ask questions to demonstrate that you’re interested in the person with whom you’re meeting. If you’re someone who struggles with coming up with conversation topics or networking icebreaker questions on the spot, having a mental list of questions or topics you can bring up is a great hack. When I meet someone for the first time, this is how I typically go about the conversation:
1) Does the person have any interesting hobbies?
2) Is there anything about the person that stands out that is appropriate to bring up? Perhaps something about an awesome piece of clothing they're wearing, a tattoo, or maybe even their dog (pets are always great icebreakers!). There’s potentially a deeper story there that highlights something they are passionate about.
3) If they’re not responding, I’ll tend to change the subject until we arrive at something that truly excites them.
Be vulnerable about yourself, people don’t like to have one-sided conversations, and most people don’t want to open up to people they aren’t comfortable with themselves.
We thrive from making connections, but that doesn’t mean everyone is naturally good at communication. You may run into communication barriers that can trip up a conversation, or you might need to improve your active listening or interpersonal skills. There are so many facets of communication, and you likely haven’t mastered them all.
Before stepping into a networking situation, consider what pieces of communication aren’t your strong suit, take a moment to look into how you can improve those skills, and even use them to build your next networking relationship.
As you learn from and about the other person, look for how you can help them. That may be as simple as listening to them, but even if it is, try to go beyond that. If you discover they’re passionate about something, share any insights you may have. For example, maybe they’re really into designing floral arrangements, and you heard about a great way to buy floral arrangement kits online. Share that with them. Even better, maybe you know someone interested in the same thing. Offer to connect them, if the other side is open to it too. The intro may be related to their hobby, it may be providing a helpful business connection to them, or it may be something as simple as connecting them to a great plumber. One of my favorite questions is to ask people what interesting problem or puzzle they’re currently working through. It’s light enough that you’re not going to get into anything inappropriately personal but interesting enough that you’ll usually find a way to help them out.
Now that you know how you can help that other person, you need a way to provide that help. Whether it’s sending an intro over to them, or following up later with some interesting links. So, now it’s time to give them your digital business card so that you can follow up on your commitment to helping them. I recommend HiHello—HiHello is both a mobile and web-based app that allows you to make and send digital business cards.
Sharing your business card is simple. First, take out your phone and open the HiHello app. From there the other person can simply scan the QR code with the camera app on their phone and they’ll have your digital business card. (They don’t need any additional apps on their phone to receive your card.) After they have your information they’ll have the opportunity to send their information back to you. Or, they can simply give you their paper business card and you can scan it into your contacts using the HiHello’s business card scanner.
Now you know what makes that person great, and you have a way to help them. Take notes. I recommend doing this directly in their contact information on the HiHello app. You can add notes directly to your new contact, and they’re completely private to you. Make sure you note down what you learned about that person, anything you planned on following up with, and ways you could potentially help in the future. Once you do that, then asking for help from them in the future will be simple, and the person will likely be more than happy to help someone who has worked hard to make sure they helped them first.
In times when you don’t need their help, make sure you still drop them a note and keep in touch. How do you keep in touch? Check the notes you made to remember things that were important to them. Maybe they mentioned a favorite sports team in the conversation. When you see how that team is doing, drop them a note about a surprising win or a close but disappointing loss.
HiHello will even help you with this. Shortly after you share your business card with that person, we’ll suggest they share their information back with you. Once they do that, you’ll be able to respond directly to the email from HiHello to stay connected with them.
You’ll eventually want help from people in your network. When you do, the easiest thing is to . Often, the most difficult part of this is the story you tell yourself. If you’ve kept in touch with people and helped them before, this will be easy. Having helped them, you’ll expect you can rely on them and can be direct and simply ask for what you need. If you haven’t, you’ll need to avoid some of the common mistakes people make.
1) Don’t pretend that you’re staying in touch only to try to later turn it into an ask
2) Don’t bring up any favors you did (or didn’t) do.
3) Make the ask, even if you forgot to stay in touch. Sometimes asking for help is a good way to restart a relationship.
You may want to still hear about how the other person is doing and get an update from them. I always prefer to do that after I’ve made my ask. The reason for this is that it feels and is more genuine when it comes second. If you try to be interested in them before you make your ask, you’ll be focused on how you can weave your ask into the conversation, and whenever you do, the other person may feel your interest was just an excuse to get to the ask (it probably was!) Going second, you can take as much time as you need to learn what’s new with this person, and hear about any updates. I just recently connected with an old friend and colleague, where I needed to get their advice on something. They graciously accepted, even though we hadn’t talked in a couple of years. My ask took about 15 minutes of the conversation, then we were able to spend the next 30 minutes just talking about how things were going for them, and I even left with the opportunity to make two introductions for that person and give some advice back. None of that would have happened if we started with a “catch up” as a way to sneak in my ask.
Finally, when networking, don’t limit yourself to your industry alone—connecting with a variety of different people is key to having a powerful network. You’ll be able to help people in more ways. Instead of simply making in-industry introductions, you could help them find tickets to important sporting events, navigate a new city or country, or even find someone to fix their drywall. Having diversity in your network will allow you to seize opportunities others cannot.
This may be one of the most difficult networking skills to develop. Confidence doesn’t always come naturally, nor does it come easily for most people. However, it is worth the effort. When you’re confident, it helps you establish credibility and build trust.
While gaining true confidence may not be simple, you can make a few simple changes to appear more confident while networking.
1) Speak slowly and clearly. Don’t rush through introductions or questions. Slowing your speech and coming across calmly will help you appear more confident.
2) Don’t let your nervousness rule you. Understand where your fear is coming from, accept that it’s okay to be nervous when networking, and continue to work through it.
3) Remember that you are your own harshest critic. The people you meet are likely going to see you in a more positive light than you see yourself, so don’t let your internal critic get the better of you as you work to make new connections.
We all make mistakes, and how you network might not be the best method, which is why is essential to be able to look at how you network and find areas for improvement. After a networking event, think back over your conversations and ask what could have gone better. What went really well? Find your strengths and your weaknesses so you can improve to become a better networker.
When we talk about growing your network, it can be easy to assume the bigger the better, but networking isn’t about knowing everyone. It's about relationship building. Rather than looking for more names to add to your network, think about how you can create long-lasting relationships with the people within your network. Focus on reaching out regularly and connecting with people who genuinely interest you.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is an essential communication skill. Having a high EQ means you have the ability to navigate complex social situations with sensitivity and empathy. By working on improving your EQ, you’ll be better able to build strong relationships, create a positive environment, manage conflict, and more.
When you focus on emotional intelligence, there are three things you can do to improve this skill.
1) Practice self-awareness. Reflect on your emotions, how they impact your own thoughts, and how they affect those around you.
2) Develop self-regulation skills. Don’t let impulses or rash behavior take over. Stay calm, cool, and collected.
3) Cultivate empathy. Understand the emotions of those around you and use that to foster stronger relationships.
Main photo by Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent