“Network, network, network” is a common career-building directive given to first-time job hunters and seasoned professionals alike. It is impossible to browse career blogs and business advice columns without being reminded of the importance of networking for success.
The idea of networking can be a bit intimidating, but the fundamental practices have been around for quite some time. Networking is just a fancy term for talking to people and building connections. Surely, you can network –you’ve been taking to people your whole life!
What sets networking apart from normal everyday conversations is intention and purpose. Good networkers share information and build connections. They make concerted efforts to expose themselves to new people and opportunities while continuing to maintain and strengthen existing contacts. Effective networking requires sharing, openness, and courage to push beyond your comfort zone in meeting new people and cultivating relationships.
While it may seem scary or intimidating to put yourself out there, networking is an essential part of your career development. With more practice, it often gets easier over time. The truth is, few people are natural networkers. Most of us grew up being told don’t talk to strangers and for many of us, that is what networking feels like. At networking events, it is likely the other people feel just as awkward as you, so give them a break; help them out by saying hello and initiating a conversation.
It helps to develop networking techniques that suit your natural style. If you loath big events, receptions and conferences may not be your ideal networking venues. Look for smaller events or start by deepening relationships with existing acquaintances. Attend presentations or professional development events with the goal of speaking to the people sitting on either side of you and build from there. Consider volunteering to be on committees or to help with projects where you will be in involved with others in a more controlled situation. As your comfort level grows so too will your ability to connect.
Networking can seem challenging, but you have been practicing the basic skills your entire life. Just make it a point to get out there and say hello. Remember to listen more than you speak and to take a genuine interest in others. Share generously but expect nothing in return. Ask respectfully for advice or assistance during your conversations. Over time connections will be forged, your network will grow, and everyone will benefit.
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Ann Martin is a Career Services Advisor at University of Maryland University College where she has worked for more than five years. She holds a master’s in mental health counseling from Bowie State University. As a mid-life career changer, she feels uniquely qualified to assist adult students in transforming their lives and finding their place in the workforce.