Your professional networking questions – answered
Networking. You get to advance your career by hanging out with like-minded people, probably involving food. What’s not to like? Actually, for many people, quite a lot. Approaching strangers, making small talk, telling people about yourself – this can all seem a little intimidating at first, but trust us when we say it's worth your while (and it's not as scary as it might sound).
Professional networking isn't about walking into a room full of strangers and trying to charm them, simultaneously, into being your best friends. Nor is it about identifying the most senior people in the room and hanging off their every word (unless you want to be known as a suck-up). It's about consciously and gradually building up a list of contacts, while being part of a mutually supportive group. A good professional networker actively listens, joins in and focuses on creating long-term relationships with contacts – they're not just out to impress the boss or get what they need and go.
Our guide to job networking tips will give you insight into why making contacts matters, and how you can go about it.
What is networking?
Firstly, what do we mean by networking? A network is a connected community of professionals with related business interests. It might include your current and former colleagues, people you went to school or university with, contacts you've made at work functions or conferences, and those you've met at dedicated networking events.
There's no best way to manage each of the different professional relationships you'll cultivate over the years – you might meet former colleagues once a month for drinks, and stay in touch with conference contacts through occasional emails. However, it's important to keep up communication to build a strong community of contacts you can call on when you're in need.
The advantages of networking
Why is networking important? A professional network can support your career development and help you in your current role. It's a great way to get a deeper understanding of the happenings within different departments in your company and within the industry as a whole, and it could even help you to secure new clients or get that dream job through word-of-mouth recommendations.
Networking within your own organisation makes you a better-known candidate when a promotion opportunity comes up, too. If recruiters can put a face to the name on the CV and already know your strengths from previous meetings, you're starting your application on a strong footing.
Making professional contacts not only benefits you in your current role, it can help you when you're next on the lookout to make a career move. Having contacts in the right places will ensure you have a heads-up about the latest openings, and a well-placed word could help to secure that interview.
Knowledge sharing and having 'feelers' out there in the industry is great, but what are some of the tangible ways your network can help you today?
- Career advice. If you have contacts in more senior roles, or in different sectors, their advice could be valuable if you're facing a tricky task or problem.
- Mentoring. Having a mentor is a great way to advance your career. Maybe it's someone already in your network, or maybe a contact can put you in touch with the perfect person.
- Information. Need help with a specific project? Ask your contacts to put you in touch with someone who specialises in the subject.
- Company-to-company relations. Knowing someone in a partner organisation can make your working relationship much smoother and more productive.
- Vacancies. Let your network know when you're on the lookout for a new role, just in case they know of anything that's opening up soon.
- Speculative applications. Want to work for a specific company? Your contact on the inside will know who's best to send your application to (along with their seal of approval).
Remember – networking is a two-way street, so be prepared to offer support to your contacts when they reach out in need.
Always bear in mind the importance of confidentiality when having seemingly informal conversations with your network. Some might happily share all sorts of intel about their organisation, but don't get drawn into doing the same. Gently step back and be conscious of what you're divulging yourself.
Learning how to network
Networking is a professional skill, and like most professional skills, it can be learned. If you're new to the networking game, the easiest way to get started is to team up with a friend or colleague who is confident in their abilities. They can act as your event buddy and help with introductions to get you started, or share their own networking tips. This also gets you over the first hurdle – walking into a room on your own.
With experience, networking does get easier. Start with events you feel comfortable with, where you’ll know a few people. Over time, you’ll get to know more and more people in your field (which of course, is the general idea of networking), and these events will start to feel truly sociable. You might even start looking forward to them.
Networking with the right people
Yes, you want to get out there and meet people, but a scatter-gun approach to networking is neither the most efficient nor the most effective way to build up your contacts. So how can you tell who's a good person to network with, and who to avoid?
Like any good relationship, it should be mutually beneficial. A good contact will be:
- interested in the long term, as well as the here and now
- willing to offer help and advise, as well as talking about themselves
- able to demonstrate their skill, rather than making unsupported claims.
The signs of a bad contact are:
- A lack of credibility.
- Asking for help too often.
- Focusing only on their own needs.
- Being unwilling to explore possibilities.
These people might be great fun, but in a professional context, they can become a burden and can prevent you from making real, strong contacts that'll benefit your career. If it's time to let someone slip off your radar, you have two choices – be upfront (but polite) about the fact that this relationship isn't working for you anymore, or simply stop replying to their emails. Be warned – the second of these options can make for some uncomfortable encounters when you inevitably bump into each other again.
Lots of people find the idea of networking a bit intimidating, and if that's you, you might benefit from taking one of the many networking courses available online or in person. These classes tend to focus on building confidence and dealing with the practicalities of networking, like figuring out how to start a conversation with someone you don't know. Don't forget to ask for the contact details of the people on your course too – they could be the first people in your growing network.
Business networking events
Now you’ve thought about what you want from a network, joined a friend at an event, and maybe even completed a course, it’s time to go live. So, where can you go to meet the right kind of people?
Most industries hold regular networking events. These usually have a programme of relevant talks interspersed with plenty of breakout time. They’re designed to help businesses increase their professional networks, so they can create opportunities and partnerships. However, they’re also a great chance to expand your own contacts list and build long-lasting relationships.
There are many other opportunities – a training course is often a good way to meet people from other organisations, and you can get to know each other during those essential comfort breaks. In fact, many training days or conferences have networking time as part of the agenda.
If you really are uncomfortable with large rooms of people, don’t worry. You can hook up with smaller groups over coffee. That’s still networking. Other ways to increase your circle of contacts include volunteering, and joining a new club. After all, you’re still building a group of new contacts.
Yes, it is like speed dating, and in fact, the speed networking model was based on the more romantic version. Find an event near you that sounds relevant, and apply to attend. Here are some tips for making a good first impression, quickly:
- Dress professionally.
- Have a short elevator pitch prepared.
- Bring business cards.
- Make sure you listen as well as talk.
- Prepare questions to ask the other participants.
- Take a few notes, if that helps you.
- Follow up with people you liked, either by email or over social media.
These days, a lot of networking goes on online. There are lots of business networking groups on social media that are great for hooking up with industry peers. Professional group pages on Facebook are a great way of keeping up with your industry on a global scale. If you have kids and find it harder to attend evening functions, social business networks can be especially helpful.
But (and there is a but), if you’re hoping to grow a network of contacts for career development, there's no replacement for meeting people in the physical world. Yes, expand your virtual network, but don’t lose sight of the importance of old-fashioned face-to-face communication.
Asking your network for help
It’s a good idea to forewarn people in your network about possible requests for help. For example, if you know there’s an organisational restructure coming up and you’ve told your contacts, they’ll already be half expecting a request for job-seeking support. This will help prepare them for a timely response to your request, and get them looking out for you ahead of time.
Don't be exploitative
There are two key networking rules: think long-term, and don’t over-exploit relationships. Ideally, you’ll have gradually built up your network of contacts a long time before you need to ask them for help. If you ask a short-term acquaintance to put in a good word before your relationship is established, it could seem like you’re just using them, and nobody wants to feel like that.
However, sometimes, you simply have to ask when the need arises. If you’ve been a helpful and nurturing member of a network, this shouldn’t be a problem. Simply explain your situation, ask for help and follow up once without pestering. As always, don't forget to ask about them. Letting them know you're not treating this as a one-sided thing will be reassuring when you need to call in favours early on.
Look after your network
Like all relationships, your professional network requires attention. Otherwise, it may not be there when you need it. Here's how to keep your network on side:
- Communicate regularly, online and in person.
- Introduce people from your network(s) to each other.
- Always be ready to offer assistance.
- Remember things about them (got a poor memory for names or details? Try these memory tips).
- Organise informal events yourself, which can be as simple as after-work drinks.
How to ask your network for help
It's never easy to ask for help, so what's the best way to approach it? There's no one-size-fits-all solution here – it depends on the person, the favour and the distance between you. For example, if you're asking a person you see every day, an email may seem a little stand-offish. If they live 400 miles away, waiting for the chance to ask them in person will likely mean an opportunity missed.
When you’re composing your request (in your head or via email), think about the following:
- Start with a friendly greeting – then get to the point.
- Explain clearly what it is you’re asking for.
- Be brief with the back story – your contact needs a context, not a full-blown account.
- Give them any specific information they may need.
- If it’s time-critical, say so.
Always offer to help them in return. Afterwards, take time to thank them – and a traditional greetings card goes further than a text. If their help has benefitted you, keep them up to date on your progress, giving them that warm, glowing feeling of having helped out.
Networking how-to: dos and don'ts
- Think about right people to network with – and understand when a contact might not be mutually beneficial.
- Consider both short- and long-term career plans when meeting people.
- Buddy up with a confident friend or colleague when getting started.
- Look into networking courses if you'd like extra help.
- Attend networking events in your industry and local area.
- Listen as well as talk, and ask questions.
- Follow up new contacts by email or on social media after the event.
- Ask for help only when it's needed, and be prepared to offer help when it's asked of you.
- Always thank someone who's offered you support and keep them updated on your progress.
- Only build contacts for short-term help.
- Invest your time in contacts who are only out for themselves.
- Break confidences or divulge sensitive information.
- Take from your network without giving in return.
- Neglect your network.
- Break contact once someone has given help.
A professional network can be a really helpful way of advancing your career. Don't forget virtual networks too, and make contact with potential new employers by uploading your CV with Monster.