Networking has somewhat of a bad rep, and often conjures up images of standing around making awkward small talk with strangers. But actually, it's an incredibly powerful career tool, and it's totally worth reframing any negative views you have on it, according to Elizabeth Ogabi, entrepreneur and author of Side Hustle in Progress: A Practical Guide to Kickstarting Your Business. Here, Elizabeth shares her advice on how to network smarter, without the awkwardness, and explains the benefits of networking for your career.
What does networking mean?
To help you get over the hurdle of building your network, you should reframe your thinking around what it is - it’s more than standing around with a drink in your hand in a fancy venue - you are likely to meet people anywhere and everywhere. For me, it means creating ‘meaningful connections’. This goes beyond knowing someone’s name and having their connection on LinkedIn; it’s having a real interest in someone and connecting with that in mind.
As with mentoring, make sure you not only network up but also across. Actress, writer, director, and producer of the HBO hit series Insecure, Issa Rae, shared in a video that in the early days of her career it was ‘networking across’ that helped her. She said: "Who’s next to you? Who’s struggling? Who’s in the trenches with you? Who’s just as hungry as you are? Those are the people that you need to build with.' She collaborated with peers and was able to create projects that have got her the recognition that has led to her success and more opportunities. Networking across allows you to make new friends and build with people who are also looking for opportunities to progress their careers.
If you’re speciﬁc about what it is you want to achieve, you can be more intentional and strategic about building your network. Is it connecting with peers in your ﬁeld or is it looking for mentors who can advise you? Or maybe journalists who are experienced in covering the industry you’re focused on? Whatever the goals are, get clear on them by thinking about what the priorities are for you.
Take it slow
As ambitious as you may be, creating genuine connections takes time - whether these connections came through social media or via introductions. Moving from the cold email to an actual, real-life conversation could take a couple of months of effort. Start slowly and commit to connecting with one or two people a month or however many you feel comfortable with. When you connect, start with the personal chit-chat then progress to the professional talk - making sure you ﬁnd out about what they are working on, how you can support them, then end with your own ask.
Share your story
Be vocal about what you’re trying to achieve - share it with those around you, on social media and however you can. You’d be surprised that you will start attracting the network you want without having to do all the heavy lifting. People like connecting with people who are doing interesting things!
Build it before you need it
Don’t wait until you need something to start connecting with someone; no one wants someone reaching out for a favour without having established a connection with them. Of course, this can happen in some instances but I ﬁnd it’s better to connect and build some familiarity before you need anything. For example, I have a tendency to add people working on interesting things to my LinkedIn - I’ll pop them a message complimenting their work and ask them to connect whenever they’re free; most of the time there is no intention for an immediate ask. As you begin to share content on your LinkedIn timeline, they’ll begin to connect with it, which helps in building a connection for when you may decide to reach out to them.
How to find your network
Look inside: Start within your own network; thinking of family, friends and colleagues - who could offer advice or who could they connect you with? Social media platforms usually allow you to see mutual contacts, so your ﬁrst connection could help in making an onward introduction if need be.
Communities: Join online and real-life communities that bring people together, who share the same interests.
Social media: From Twitter to LinkedIn to the Dots and also platforms like Lunchclub and Bumble Bizz, digital has given us the opportunity to make connections locally and globally.
Formal mentorship programmes: Look out for structured mentorship programmes that not only connect you with mentors but also with peer mentors. These types of programmes help to take the pressure off networking, for example Adweek runs an annual mentorship programme that connects rising talent within marketing with senior marketers.
Events: Industry and networking events are good places to start, but you never know who you might meet at non-professional events too, so also keep those in mind.
How to network smarter
There are people out there who want to help you, who have been where you are or are currently where you are, and the only thing separating the relationship is reaching out.
When wanting to reach out to someone, always check to see if you have mutual contacts - if so, and you’re comfortable enough to do so, ask for an introduction. When asking for an introduction via email, write a draft of the email they could potentially send on your behalf, which takes most of the effort out of their hands. I have done this in the past and it’s a perfect way for you to write your own introduction and put your best foot forward – no one can sell you better than yourself.
If you haven’t already connected on other social platforms, email is likely to be the ﬁrst point of interaction between you and the person you want to connect with. Some top tips are:
Use Contact Out to help you ﬁnd the preferred emails for the people you want to approach via LinkedIn or search on Google, or on their social media bios.
Make sure you are sending from a professional email address.
Make the subject line something clear and to the point rather of something vague like ‘connecting’.
If you don’t hear back, give it about four days to a week before you follow up the second time, then try one more time.
Social media offers a fantastic platform to approach others, but always do so with courtesy, just as you would via email. An easy way to connect with someone on social media is by engaging with their content, for instance, replying and liking their tweets or re-sharing their work on LinkedIn. In most cases people will let you know via their bio if you should keep all work-related info via email. If there is no clue, I tend to send a DM and ask if they are open to discussing what I had in mind via DM.
How to maintain your network
Meeting people in real life allows you to truly authentically connect, and this experience cannot be replicated through technology. Select a location that is more suitable for them: I always tend to want my connections to travel less, so I choose somewhere that is more convenient for them. Have in mind the way you’d like the conversation to go, as this will allow you to be prepared and manage the time better. So make sure you have your asks ready, if there are any. That being said, give room to be ﬂexible, too.
Investing time into managing the connections you have is vital to keeping those connections strong. Depending on your last discussion or the role the connection plays in your life, regular email updates would be great.
Be ready to say more than ‘thank you’ and to add genuine value by supporting your new contacts in any way possible. Ask them what you could do to support their own projects or goals, or if there is anyone you could help connect them with; connections are a two-way street and both parties should beneﬁt.
Elizabeth Ogabi is also the host of the podcast How I Made it Happen and the Founder of For Working Ladies and co-founder of Leicour both organisations focused on supporting women in building their careers. Side Hustle in Progress: A Practical Guide to Kickstarting Your Business by Elizabeth Ogabi (HarperNonFiction, £10.99) is out now.
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