It’s not what you know, as the old saying goes. It’s who you know. If you want to be successful in your career, it’s not enough to do good work at your nine to five job; you’ve also got to get out there and meet new people, cultivate strong relationships, and establish a vast personal network of contacts.
For some people, securing and keeping these relationships is second nature. They’re outgoing and always ready to extend a hand, lend an ear, and say something witty and relevant. However, many of us aren’t that extroverted, and establishing and maintaining business relationships is hard work. It just goes against our more introverted tendencies — it’s not what we’re naturally good at. We got into business because we have great ideas and unmatched skills, not because we love to talk shop with movers and shakers.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make building a professional network easier, even if you’re not a naturally outgoing person. Here are six tips for business networking success.
1. Go Where the People Are.
Social media is excellent for publicity and for creating a compelling online persona, but real networking just doesn’t get done via social networks. It’s still done the old fashioned way: face to face. Neal Goldman, Founder & Chairman of Relationship Science (RelSci), puts it this way: “Websites like LinkedIn and Facebook are good for keeping people on your radar and for keeping up with their professional details, but they’re just not good places for building strong relationships. To do that, you’ve got to get out there, actually shake hands with people, look them in the eye, and have a face-to-face conversation.” What does this mean for you? Mostly, it means joining professional societies and service clubs, looking for networking events near you, and then (and this is the key part) showing up. Better yet, it means showing up a few minutes early, before the crowd arrives and groups are formed. You’ll find it much easier to strike up a conversation with others who arrive early, and this can help build your confidence for the rest of the event.
2. Listen More than You Talk.
This is good advice for conversation in any relationship, but it’s especially important when you’re trying to build a professional network. It can be hard to listen so actively, especially if networking makes you nervous; you may feel like you’re there to tell others about yourself, and anxiety can keep you talking and talking. Try to remind yourself, though, that conversations aren’t a monologue. Slow down, stop talking, ask questions that allow that other person to speak, and then listen to what they have to say. Soon enough, you’ll be known as someone who’s genuinely interested in what others have to say and not as someone who won’t stop jabbering.
3. Offer to Help — and then Follow Through.
Even better than being known as someone who’s interested in others is being known for thoughtfulness and helpfulness. As you’re conversing and listening with people, you may hear them talk about things that could benefit from your expertise. While you don’t want to force your assistance on anyone, you can lob the ball in their court and offer to lend a hand if they’d like one. And of course, if they decide to take you up on your offer, make good on it and do what you can to help them solve a problem, learn something new, or generally make their life easier. You’ll quickly earn a reputation as a gracious individual, and you may find that those you help are eager to return the favor.
4. Don’t Just Work — Volunteer.
Your job puts you in contact with people in your specific field, but when you volunteer for a community organization, you’re suddenly in touch with a whole other, wider group of people. Look for opportunities to get involved to stay visible while you give back to your community. What’s more, volunteer work can also give you another point of entry in conversation, especially with people whose line of work doesn’t have much to do with yours.
5. Be a Contact and a Connector.
Creating new relationships for yourself is crucial for networking success, but it’s also important to facilitate relationships for others. It not only helps your colleagues, but it garners you a reputation as a thoughtful and helpful person. RelSci’s Neal Goldman explains, “A lot of people let the relationships with the most important people they know languish for fear of ‘using the bullet.’ Try to nurture relationships, including introducing people you know that would benefit from knowing each other. Both people will be thankful. Creating mutually beneficial relationships is critical. Look for any opportunity to help someone whose relationship you value.”
6. Just be Yourself.
At the end of the day, successful networking is a result of nothing more than honest interactions. Resist the urge to put up a facade, and avoid the temptation to artificially build yourself up or act in a way that isn’t consistent with your everyday personality. Instead, smile, listen, and be true to who you are.