How To Build Relationships While You’re In College

12/07/2016 12:39 pm ET

College can be an awkward time in your professional career. You have a major, decided what you want to do with your adult life, and are taking steps towards that career path, but you don’t yet have the traction or foothold to make the bigger moves you’re imagining.

I see this with a lot of my students. They’re nervous that because they have little to no work experience and virtually zero business connections, it will take forever to get their career off the ground. Or at least, they do not have the credentials to show an employer their professional and leadership potential. 

What I tell them is this:

If you’re in a university setting, you are in one of the best networking positions imaginable. As a college student, you can access people and build connections that support the rest of your career while still in university, you just have to know how.

1. Become A Leader Among Your Peers

Taking leadership roles helps you stand out from the crowd and develop some industry capital, and provide tangible proof points that provide potential employers confidence in you.

I interviewed a master’s student who joined a fraternity that was small. Joseph liked their message and what they stood for. He wanted to show his leadership capability, so he jumped in to become VP of Marketing, and stated that a goal to grow the organization by fifty percent in one year.

This was a difficult endeavor especially because the other Greek fraternities were already well established and the norm for change was only a few percentage points a year. However, Joseph rallied his brothers around this audacious goal and ended up growing the fraternity by forty percent (note to self: set aggressive targets and even if you miss by a little, life is good). Most importantly, he met great people and established lasting relationships with them throughout the process. And yes, it was a great resume point, and that made an impression on me as a potential employer.

It’s not just Greek life either. Any club or organization related to your chosen field is a prime opportunity for you to lead and develop connections, skills, and a little resume padding.

If You Can’t Find A Leadership Position, Make One

Be proactive. Joseph the master’s student essentially created a role for himself out of nothing. It wasn’t necessarily the most recognized fraternity, but he took action and made an impact. The fact that he could say that he was VP of Marketing was an added benefit and did help him stand out.

If you are in a club or other organization that is not so established, it may be easier to find a leadership position. It is more important to contribute and grow than to chase the best sounding name and be a wallflower. The organization will benefit from your contributions, and you will have a direct role in creating their success. Others will thank you for investing the time, and yes you can put it on your resume.

Being part of an organization, especially in roles like Marketing, Event, and Membership, also gives you the authority and to call upon outside people for advice about your role - whether it be someone in the administration at school, or someone in a business that you want to speak to.

2. Use Your Position To Connect With Business Leaders

If there is a prominent business person that you would like to contact, all you need to do is call them and say that you are doing research for your organization, perhaps for a publication. You can ask them to speak or write down a few words of wisdom to put into your newsletter. It does not matter who the person is, you have the ability and the platform to contact nearly anyone on behalf of your organization.

I call this the “golden ticket,” because like Charlie’s ticket in the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory, your status as a college student provides a unique opportunity to meet with very senior people. The very fact you are not senior, and simply wanting to learn, is all the more appealing to those people you would like to meet.

When I was in graduate school, I was involved with a group that got together to talk about business trends and areas for growth. At one point, I decided that I would reach out to this impressive and inspirational investment banker who had just been featured on the front page of Forbes magazine.

I called him on behalf of our little group and while I couldn’t get his time (out of the country for several months), was able to reach his right-hand man. I asked for some of his time on behalf of our group, and he actually offered to meet at his office. My friend and I went to his office at the top of that downtown skyscraper and he bought us breakfast and gave us on hour of his time. All it took was a phone call, a little creativity, and an authentic desire to learn. That hour of his time provided us with pure gold, a series of first-person, objective data points that cut through all the vague half-truths about business that college students typically rely upon to make business judgments.

If someone is an expert on a topic that you are interested in, reach out to them because more often than not, they will be happy to talk about that particular area.

If the person cannot meet, they will tell you. Of course, there are people that are not generous with their time, but the person may actually be too busy to meet. Anyway, asking does not hurt. In my experience, people are generally good and want to help if they can. The more senior they are, the accomplished they are, the more they are open to sharing that knowledge with someone. They have blown past their own insecurities and deep down, they want to pass on what they know. This is embedded deep in our DNA as human beings, how the tribal elders would pass on their wisdom to the next generation. Society today does not provide an easy way to do this, and successful people who have mastered their craft appreciate the opportunity to do so.

When You Connect, Come Prepared

Keep in mind that a person’s openness to share their wisdom and connections is directly proportional to the preparation and eagerness to learn that they see in you. Have something specific to ask. Do your research. This is important because most likely, the person whom you are trying to contact is an expert on the topic you are asking about. They’ve probably written extensively – articles, interviews, books – about the subject.

Therefore, don’t ask them an uneducated question that could have been answered by just reading one of their articles. Scan or read their work or content about them, and try to think beyond the obvious. With the internet, it is easy to access and readily available, but it does take some time. If the person is truly worth the effort to meet, it is worth your time to prepare. This is an important point, and merits repeating: read all the publicly available information and have an initial point of view, so the discussion can cover the good stuff, the nuggets that are real insights and differentiators.

Connect with people beyond business. Often business or thought leaders have charities that they head or are heavily involved in. Or, they have hobbies that they are publicly involved in. If you can connect with them on that level, it can take the conversation and your connection to another level.

For instance, you were an avid tennis player and you are speaking to an executive who played tennis in college, perhaps you can say something along the lines of “I understand that you like tennis, how have the skills you learned while playing competitive tennis translated for you in the business world?” It is amazing how people open up when they are talking about something that they care about. More importantly, it is more enjoyable and enriching discussion.

Remember, you are not trying to make a lifelong friend, so don’t overreach. All you want is to learn, access to wisdom from an expert. Importantly, be authentic. You are on a genuine quest for knowledge, to learn from someone more accomplished in a field, and hopefully through some element of common ground. Too many young people feel they have to be ‘businesslike’ and they leave the personality at the door. Far from improving the result, these networking attempts become the oily ‘what can you do for me’ mechanical transactions that send most normal business people running the other direction. Instead, shown your vulnerability and desire to learn something.

3. Keep Your Connection Alive Until After Graduation

Staying in contact with an important person is another thing entirely.

Approach the interaction with empathy and understanding. People are busy with their lives, often times getting hundreds or perhaps even thousands of emails a day, and it is difficult to stay in touch. Occasionally send an email with a link to an article or convention and write something like, “I saw this and thought of you.” View this as a gift that you’ve extended. Keep the interaction casual and don’t expect action on their part.

They can ignore it, delete it, or whatever else they want, but do not get angry because it is just a gift and you are not asking for anything.

When Your Connection Doesn’t Respond, Don’t Get Upset

I think this is something that is difficult for people to deal with today because technology allows people to be connected all of the time – at least the perception of being connected. Just because someone does not respond to you, does not mean that they did not see it or do not appreciate it.

It takes a jaded person to not appreciate a gift, and people appreciate or at least acknowledge it when you follow up. Do not leap to the conclusion that if they don’t respond, that they don’t like you. They may have seen all of your messages, and think well of you, but they just don’t have a reason to get back to you. Just continue to think of these low-impact touches as small investments or deposits for the future.

Back when voicemail was a big thing, before emailing became the primary means of communication, I was meeting one afternoon with Tom, Chief Information Officer for a major apparel manufacturer. My team and I were doing an important project for this client, and I had established a good relationship with Tom.

I was sitting with the CIO in his office, and he was going through his voice mails. He invited me to listen on his speakerphone as he went through them. He had something like 30 voicemails waiting for his response. The messages ranged from people who wanted to sell him things, to people who needed something from him, to people who were asking for favors. It was hard to imagine how he got through all those voice mails, all day long, everyday. And more importantly, everyone was asking something from him – no one was offering anything to make his life easier, to bring him value. Of course today, those 30 voice mails are multiplied into 300 or more emails each day, essentially wanting the same thing, and copying him as a leader ‘just in case’ he needs to read it. The lesson here is that anyone you want to reach is already more than 100% busy and has zero spare time. Any time you get will be at the expense of something else they are doing. So if you are asking for their time, appeal to something personal that will help tip the scales in your favor, and show immense respect for whatever time and response you do receive.

No Matter Where Your Career Is, Authenticity Is Key

When building business relationships, it is important to make sure that you cultivate a personal dimension. Otherwise, the relationship feels unnatural, and like it is something you are pursuing because you feel that you have to, not because you want to.

You want to come across as relaxed and personal, so, blend your interests with your goals. This is a way to keep yourself grounded and to have fun as well. You will be able to show off your earnestness, enthusiasm, and general interest. Develop this mindset for application in networking events, meetings, and other various activities.

It can be hard in today’s digital, remote environment to feel like you are truly connecting with people. Yes, there is Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn etc., but just because you have access to so many people through social media, that does not mean that your network is limitless. In fact, you can only have strong business relationships with a limited number of people. The more you try to expand that number, the more you will eventually dilute the relationships you already have. By all means connect with lots of people and develop a broad, diverse set of contacts. Just understand the difference between those people you can count on for their time, advice, and friendship, and those who are casual contacts.

Your time is valuable, so prioritize your time and identify the people with whom you want to spend that precious time. Identify who you like being around, and who you want to learn from, and as my wife would say, who makes you laugh. Spend your time establishing better relationships with those people.

We work hard in consulting and any profession, and it consumes a lot of our time and energy, and often blurs the line between our professional and our personal lives. We might as well spend this time with people we respect and can learn from. And before long, you can be that person people reach to meet for advice.

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