By: Alexander Carbone
Networking – it’s a word that evokes many emotions in individuals who hear it. For some, networking has been the key to their business and career journey thus far. For others, the question becomes “how do I get started?” At ACCESS, we understand that building your professional network is critical for small business and career opportunities, especially for new Canadians. In this article, I will share some tips and tricks to becoming a networking pro and some pitfalls to be mindful of.
Where to Start?
The first question may novices have when beginning their networking journey is where to start. In the age of information technology, meeting people has become easier than ever, but doing so through the appropriate channels is critical. Below is some advice – largely from personal experience – about the right channels in which to network.
If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, the first step is to make one and complete your profile. If it is within your means, subscribing to one of the premium options is also recommended. LinkedIn was designed as a networking website for professionals, and reaching out to new contacts is appropriate so long as it is done tactfully. This means reaching out to individuals who have shared interests or professional backgrounds as you and doing so with a personal message and not the default invite. Also, ensure you are respectful if your contact does not want to connect.
Meetings with customers, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders should not only be transactional but should be viewed as opportunities to develop lasting relationships. Perhaps a new supplier is interested in investing in your business, has a friend who could be a customer, or generally is knowledgeable about the industry you play in. Think about how to evolve these relationships from transactional to meaningful.
If your profession has a professional association, this could be a great way to network with like-minded individuals at events and forums. Better yet, if your profession does not have this (or doesn’t at the local level, such as in the GTA), why not create one?
Conferences are ripe with individuals who want to meet new professional contacts and learn about upcoming trends in the industry. Attending these provides an expansive forum for building professional connections typically in a specific industry of your choice.
It’s called the “network effect” for a reason! When building a network, I like to think of there being “primary” and “secondary” contacts. “Primary” contacts are ones you make through cold reach outs. For example, a new LinkedIn contact would fit here. “Secondary” contacts are also known as “warm-leads” – introductions you get from your primary contacts. Every contact you make can potentially lead to 2-3 additional contacts if you develop a relationship where you can ask for further introductions. This is critical to building a robust network.
Once you know where to start, you might ask “who should I reach out to?” There is no single answer to this question, but I have compiled some tips below to help you:
- Industry: Generally, building contacts in your own industry or target industry (if you are a career switcher or newcomer) is the most sensible place to start. The value of the relationship will be the greatest when done this way.
- Level: While networking can – and often should – be level-agnostic, be aware that some individuals may prefer to connect and build relationships with people in and around their level (e.g., executives are often interested in different issues than their team members might be). This does not mean you shouldn’t reach out to someone more senior – in fact, going a couple levels above where you are now can be helpful – but it requires tactfulness.
- Intention: Consider why you are networking. Looking for a new job? Looking to secure a new customer? Make sure the contact you are meeting is in a position to actually enable this value to be created.
The Power of Relationships
Networking is and always will be about building relationships. This may seem like obvious advice, but this can often be the piece that business owners and professionals struggle the most with. The first conversation is just one small step in a journey to developing a lasting, sustainable relationship with another party. How – and why – you choose to stay in contact is more important than this initial touchpoint. When considering how you can turn your one-off conversation into a new professional relationship, keep in mind the following:
- What is important to my new contact? When I have news to share that benefits both of us, how will I reach out?
- How am I tracking my networking? Do I have a system for making sure I keep in touch with my contacts?
- How can I go beyond superficial conversations to improve both of our careers? What introductions can I make or knowledge can I share?
You might have noticed an absence of “COVID-19” or “pandemic” throughout this article. That is because I firmly believe that networking is valuable no matter if its in-person or virtual. The same principles apply – building your network during COVID is completely OK, so long as you respect rules around social distancing.
Thanks for reading and remember – networking is one-part patience and two-parts effort!