For some, “networking,” conjures up images of overzealous “here’s my card, give me a call” hustlers intent on selling you something you don’t want or need. To others, networking means working your way through a room as if you’re being paid by the handshake.
Regardless of how you feel about interacting with strangers, networking is undeniably one of the most effective ways of meeting people who can help you grow your career or your business.
Much like investing, networking compounds over time. The more you network now, the larger your network will become. Still, it may be hard to imagine having thousands of contacts when you currently have a network made up of a few friends, mentors and colleagues.
Effective networking requires study and practice before it becomes second nature. The more you interact with others, the more comfortable you will feel.
Use these helpful hints to build your professional network from the ground up.
1. Make a list of everyone you know.
Don't make the mistake of assuming you aren’t well connected. You probably know more people than you realize. Sit down and make a list of everyone you know professionally. Start with college. Which companies did you intern with and whom did you meet on the job? Then move on to your first professional job. Jot down everyone you worked with, including your boss, co-workers, clients and vendors.
Do this for every job you’ve had in your career. Then move on to the time you’ve spent as an entrepreneur. Think of all the customers with whom you’ve worked, as well as individuals you’ve met along the way.
2. Expand your list to friends of friends.
Don’t limit your networking list to just people with whom you have a direct connection. If you have a friend who can introduce you to someone you’d like to do business with, ask for an introduction.
You'll have much more success with an introduction from a mutual friend than you would if you approached someone through a cold call. After the introduction, follow up with the new connection and offer to buy him lunch or a cup of coffee. Use this time to foster a relationship instead of selling yourself or services.
3. Grow your list over time.
Once you’ve established a list of people you know directly or through a friend, keep in touch. Make it a point to call, send emails or handwritten notes from time to time. As you meet new connections at networking events or through your business, add them to your contact list.
4. See and be seen.
As the saying goes, "Out of sight is out of mind." That's why one of the most important rules of networking is visibility. To grow your network, you have to see and be seen. Join professional organizations, associations and other groups that need your talents. Volunteer to serve on boards and committees. Attend charity fund-raising events. Get involved with extracurricular activities outside of work.
Finally, hone your public speaking skills and give presentations at industry association meetings or be a guest lecturer at a community college or a university. Before you know it, you’ll be the well-connected entrepreneur who has friends wherever he goes.