Too many people wait until they’re ready to move on to a new job—or, worse, until they’re laid off—to start taking networking seriously. That’s when you should be following up with your connections, not just setting out to establish them.
But in just a few simple steps, you can learn to identify the contacts who possess the power to effect real change in your life, reach out to them effectively (no matter who, or how important, they are), and start strategically growing a full and fruitful professional network.
In addition to weaving a sturdy safety net (should you ever need it), you’ll also put yourself in the running for exciting, unexpected opportunities.
Your time is valuable, so racing off to every conference or event in your field just so you can shake a lot of hands isn’t the best way to go. Take the time to do some research and assemble a list of all the people you would ideally want to connect with. Start by identifying everyone in your niche who has the power to really effect change in your life. If you’re in graphic design, for instance, look for ad agency execs who could land you long-term, well-paying gigs. If you’re in the food industry and looking to start up your own kitchen, on the other hand, you’ll want to focus on investors.
Then do some in-depth research on all your “targets.” What do they do outside their daily nine-to-five? Are they involved in nonprofits or volunteering? Do they have interests outside their industry, where you could conceivably mingle? Anyone in a position of power has hundreds of people trying to get a piece of them, so look for something that will make your pitch unique, attractive, and genuine.
Once you’ve got your list of prospective connections, it’s time to start hunting them down. Begin with obvious locations like conferences and speaking events—places where people expect to network and be pitched to by complete strangers. If your target is an author, book signings can be ideal, as they’re often more intimate gatherings.
Before the actual event, make sure you’re following your target on social media. If you have the chance to, say, enter into a discussion with them on Twitter, when you meet them at the actual event you’ll have an entry point into a meaningful conversation.
At the event, don’t just wait for the crowd to form around the stage after the talk is finished. If you can identify your target by sight, see if you can grab them for just a couple of minutes before they speak. This doesn’t always work, of course, and it’s important not to bug your target if they appear to be in a hurry. But it can be a great time to catch a target off-guard and get a little one-on-one time.
Whether you’re networking face-to-face or online, you walk a fine line between making a successful connection with a person and straight-up annoying them. If you come across as too eager or trying too hard, you risk losing a great potential contact.
I practice what I like to call “polite persistence with relevance,” which is all about respecting people’s time and making sure they understand not only that you have a relevant pitch, but that you’re a person who listens to, respects, and values others. It can’t be just about you — networking should be mutually beneficial. Even if you’re pitching an industry heavyweight, you can start by being subtle, then follow up later with an e-mail or social media communiqué.
For example, I was recently on tour with Facebook to promote my #neversettleclub, a members-only Facebook group that’s all about helping people turn their passion into a sustainable living (check it out at neversettleclub.com). At one event, I had the pleasure of introducing Sheryl Sandberg,Facebook COO and author of Lean In, to the crowd. We had only a few minutes back-stage, so what I said to her had to be precise and relevant; this wasn’t the time to pull out my tablet and show her a video or start swiping through a pitch deck. Instead, it was a perfect chance to just get to know each other. That realization took a lot of the pressure off, and we clicked right away.
To prepare for my follow-up, I read Sandberg’s book and began to think of ways I could become a relevant part of her life, and possibly even help her with something. I learned that she’s still working on trying to meditate daily. I’m huge into meditation, so I sent her a #neversettleclub branded meditation package with a candle, a meditation app, SleepPhones to help her meditate on the road, and a small postcard with images and quotes from members of the club who’ve benefited from meditation. I followed that up with an e-mail asking for a minute-long meeting. Not only did Sandberg join the #neversettleclub, she said yes to a meeting!
Getting a big fish to put you on their calendar can take some creativity. One tip
I love comes from Christine Comaford’s book SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, which suggests identifying a cause your target cares about, then offering to put in a few hours of volunteer work in exchange for a very short meeting.
Just don’t ask for “five minutes” — these days that’s little more than a cliché we use to con people into agreeing to something that will take much longer. Instead, I ask for six minutes, and stick to that number; if they want to keep talking after that, you won’t complain. This is how you stand out. When you’re trying to get hold of busy people, even the tiniest edge helps.
Just as your body continues to burn calories in the hours following a workout, leaving something interesting behind with your target to check out or read after you’ve left is a smart way to continue making an impression beyond the confines of your meeting. I’m not just talking about business cards here — those get thrown away or stuffed into a filing cabinet, never to be looked at again. I’m also talking about something you’ve created or customized especially for that person. A one-sheet explaining your ask might not be something your target pays much attention to when you first meet, but it could turn into a document they serendipitously rediscover on the flight home or pass along to someone who can actually connect you with a new gig.
Not that you’re looking right now or anything.