by Stephanie Sparrow
Career experts agree that networking is one of the top business skills. When used effectively it opens doors to a new job role, mentoring or business leads. However, if handled badly, you could find that those doors are slammed in your face. “Remember that you can talk yourself in, and out, of opportunities”, says director of career development at Cranfield School of Management Colin Hudson.
Hudson, who advises on senior careers across the global marketplace, explains that those who are poor networkers “don’t listen or read signals”, whereas skilled practitioners “always think about a connection that can start a conversation”.
With the conference and exhibition season in full swing, and a round of professional dinners in the offing, we asked Hudson, and other networking experts, how to create career-enhancing opportunities without looking like an opportunist.
1.Research and prepare
Before you attend the event, find out its purpose and who will be there. Use LinkedIn to research the professional backgrounds of the speakers, or your dinner companions. “Always know what the event is and be prepared,” says Lincoln Coutts of career experts Lee Hecht Harrison.
You should be well-informed about industry news so that you can hold meaningful conversations. “You need to come across as someone who is up-to-date”, says Coutts.
Hudson points out that LinkedIn research can highlight existing connections; such as, that a potential contact attended your university, which in turn can be a conversational ice-breaker.
2. Be your best self
Graduate recruitment expert Aasha Tikoo advises the budding lawyers she places at Clifford Chance to “be your best self”. This means cultivating a polite curiosity. “Find the time to know your audience and what is happening in their world,” she says. Have a few relevant questions ready and show that you have listened to the response.
It is also helpful to keep the purpose of your networking in the forefront of your mind. “Every interaction you have is a step towards securing your dream career”, she says.
3. Proffer business cards professionally
Business cards are part of your networking kit, but they should be handled with care. “It is etiquette to ask for business cards first, rather than proffer them”, says executive coach Geraldine Gallacher. “Imposing a business card on someone is so yesterday”.
When you do collect a business card make sure that you can subtly retain its networking worth. “Write on the back where you met, what you discussed, and any follow up”, adds Coutts. “This builds a path towards a person.”
If you don’t have a corporate business card then design your own, but keep it uncluttered. “Simple details such as name, mobile number and email are enough”, says Coutts.
4. Stay focussed
Show the people you meet that you are a good communicator with a clear objective for attending the event. “Have a 20-second statement ready about yourself”, says Coutts. “Think of something slightly shorter than the traditional ‘elevator pitch’ ”, he says.
There is nothing wrong with explaining: “I am here to network”, but don’t waste peoples’ time with speculative contacts. “It is better to hold a small number of high-quality conversations than a large number of irrelevant ones”, says Coutts.
Your manner should be “professional but approachable”, says Barney Ely, director of Hays Human Resources, “because you will be in the company of your peers, team members or potential managers. You don’t have to be an extrovert to be effective at networking, but it is important to pay attention to others.”
Think in terms of establishing a reciprocal network. “Consider not just how each person you meet can help you, but also how you can help them”, says Estelle Wackermann, head of business development and marketing at Wolff Olins.
5. Future-proof your network
Use tactful and appropriate follow-up to strengthen your new network.
“Making a quick phone call or sending an email shows people that you have not only remembered them but are also interested in keeping in touch”, says Ely.
LinkedIn requests are frequently used after initial introductions at events, but don’t send an immediate or impersonal request. Coutts advises that networkers use the “done business together” option when trying to connect and that this is accompanied by short message.
Demonstrating that you are well- informed will encourage your contacts to keep in touch. “Share useful content such as blogs, or thought leadership, with your network at least twice a week”, says Wackermann. “Tag clients and contacts when it’s relevant to involve them”, she says.
“Consider not just how each person you meet can help you, but also how you can help them”, she says.
Lincoln Coutts is head of career transition at Lee Hecht Harrison, and visiting lecturer in careers and social media at London Business School
Barney Ely is director of Hays Human Resources
Geraldine Gallacher is managing director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy
Colin Hudson is director of career development at Cranfield School of Management
Aasha Tikoo is graduate recruitment manager at law firm Clifford Chance
Estelle Wackermann is head of business development and marketing at creative consultancy Wolff Olins.