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What is Professional Networking and Why is it Important?

What is Professional Networking and Why is it Important?
Sep 20, 2016 Posted by Anders Östlund
Professional networking is focused on interactions and relationships of a business nature rather than including personal, non-business interactions. Professional networking can take place in any situation, venue and platform or function both offline and online but there are many platforms and forums specialized on professional networking. This article aims to provide structure and arguments around the concept of professional networking and answer the questions: What is professional networking and why is professional networking important? This article was updated on November 14th 2017 when we added a chapter about "Networking In Action". Enjoy!

Professional Networking - Introduction

Professional networking has become a topic of great interest as business interests and networks become ever more international which require access to information on a level that random and close aquaintances cannot provide. 

The outcome from professional networking can be:

  • Job offers
  • Additional sales
  • Access to talent for recruitment
  • Offers as speaker, trainer etc for a fee or for free as further promotion
  • Insights into how things ‘really work’ inside other organizations or fields of business.
  • Higher social status and access to social events inside and outside the business sphere.

What Is Professional Networking?

“Networking is a deliberate activity to build, reinforce and maintain relationships of trust with other people to further your goals. Professional networking is simply networking focused on professional goals.” - Andrew Hennigan, Networking speaker, trainer, coach. Author of "Payforward Networking".

A very important part of professional networking is that it is about building relationships and trust, not just swapping business cards. For successful networking to take place a real relationship needs to be built.

Some examples of reasons people engage in Professional Networking include:

  • To gain access to information and tacit knowledge
  • To be perceived as the ‘top-of-mind’ expert in a field of business
  • To establish new professional relationships and to strengthen existing relationships.
  • To increase others trust in you and your trust in others.
  • To have a good time. Let’s be honest, this is an important reason too
  • To make sure other people know who you are, what you do, how you do it and what you want to achieve by doing it
  • Self promotion, the establishment of oneself as an authority

Networking is about real relationships and real trust, something that is very hard to establish in an online only connection.
Source: http://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/networking.asp

Having a network is not good enough; you need to continue to do networking to ensure your network doesn’t decline. 

Why Is Professional Networking Important?

"Nardi, Whittaker and Schwarz (2002) point at three main tasks that they believe networkers need to attend in order to keep a successful professional (intentional) network: building a network, maintaining the network and activating selected contacts. They stress that networkers need to continue to add new contacts to their network in order to access as many resources as possible, and to maintain their network through staying in touch with their contacts. This is so that the contacts are easy to activate when the networker has work that needs to be done."
- Source: "Nardi, Whittaker and Schwarz (2002)

"Networks deliver three unique advantages: private information, access to diverse skill sets, and power. Executives see these advantages at work every day, but might not pause to consider how their networks regulate them," Uzzi and Dunlap argue. They show in their research how developing diverse, rather than "self-similar" network contacts through shared high-stakes activities builds a more powerful network.
Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201201/why-networking-is-the-essential-professional-skill

Deborah Mills-Scofield, writing in the Harvard Business Review argues that networking has existed for the past 2000 years and it has enabled our survival. She postulates that networks promote new forms of communication, spread knowledge and therefore our networks need to be cultivated and treated well.
 

Top Of Mind

Memories fade over time, if you are eager to keep the position as the best remembered professional it is very important that you keep making appearances at events and are a very active communicator in the local network. When somebody in your network think about a certain profession or skill they should think of you and your company. To make sure that is the case you need to remind your network of your existence and brilliance, over and over again.
 

Case 1: The real estate agent.

I met a real estate agent some years ago. She was a very active networker and appeared at many of the events that I also frequented. Almost never did she talk about business and she never initiated a conversation about her profession and company but she was always very jolly and charming, a person it was very nice to converse with. Whether she was aware of it or not I don’t know but at one point or another the persons she frequently interacted with would ask her what she did for a living and she would quietly mention she was a real estate agent specialised in housing for newly arrived expats. As she always created a nice atmosphere around herself at the events, and as people always remembered her as such it was very natural for them to call on her about a new house when they had a new colleague arriving in the city. My friend the real estate agent was always on top of people’s minds when they thought about real estate, not because she kept pushing her business but because she made a positive impression and kept reinforcing that impression so people always remembered her and found it natural to use her services. She does very well professionally I might add.
 

Relations, Relations And Again.....Relations!

Your personal brand is only as strong as your relationship to the counterpart.

If you are eager to keep the position as the best remembered professional it is very important that you keep making appearances at events and are a very active communicator in the local network.

Networking is about creating relationships with your peers. Networking gives you an opportunity to actually meet your colleagues and exchange ideas and feelings with them – two cornerstones in the process of establishing trust.
 

What Impact Can A Life-Long Professional Network Have?

Professional networking is focused on interactions and relationships of a business nature rather than personal, non-business interactions. Professional networking can take place in any situation, venue and platform or function both offline and online but there are many platforms and forums specialized on professional networking.

The outcome from professional networking can be:

  • Job offers
  • Additional sales
  • Access to talent for recruitment
  • Offers as speaker, trainer etc for a fee or for free as further promotion
  • Insights into how things ‘really work’ inside other organizations or fields of business
  • Higher social status and access to social events inside and outside the business sphere
     

Where To Network Professionally? 

Be Efficient - Network Everywhere

Don’t limit your networking to situations where you believe you “should” network but try to keep the mindset of networking active at all times to make sure you don’t miss out on very good connections.

Over some time you will see your network grow significantly if you have an open mind, this is because you naturally spend more time in general situations compared with specific networking situations.

Every Day Professional Networking

People often ask how to behave at networking events, how to get the most out of them and where to find these good networking events and in particular the networking events that fit their professional and social interests?

The question not often asked is how anybody can work on his or her professional network in daily life?

When you consider these two questions you should look at where you meet new people, not where you meet new people who are there foremost to network. If you consider all the places you meet new people you will also understand which forums are the best for networking.

As with all activities the basic “no risk, no reward” rule applies. If you are not willing to take action and open up conversations with new people you will never be able to get to know them.
 

Where Did You Meet The People You Know?

When people are asked where they do professional networking most mention various events with the specific purpose of networking but is that the whole truth?

When the question is changed to where people met most of their friends, acquaintances and business associates the answer become rather different and most people then mention common, every day places such as: 

  • School
  • Work
  • University
  • Friends of friends
  • Conferences
  • Travels

The different answers to these questions make it possible to conclude that even though professional networking events are very important to purposefully grow ones network it is equally important to realize and seize the opportunities to make friends and acquaintances in every day life – and to stay in touch with those people.

Being aware of these two sources, every day life and networking events, where ones professional and social networks are created, will have a big impact on how you perceive situations in your life.
 

Everyday Networking

Extend your conversations from a simple hello or a nod to some small talk. Small talk might seem shallow but that’s how most relationships start.

Make a sustained and focused networking effort and do it whenever you get a chance to. Chances are that some time after you have met a new person you will get to know each other enough to reach the point where you will be able to talk about more personal issues – a relationship of sorts has then developed and you are now acquainted and can rely on each other in various situations.
 

Are You In Touch With The People You Met Over The Years?

What happened to all those people you met over the years? Are you still in touch or has the relationship slowly faded away over the years? Maybe you are connected on social media but you are not really communicating there, as you don’t really have much to say to each other after years without communication?

The normal situation is that people who don’t see each other often or frequently talk in person by phone or in other ways tend to drift apart and have less and less in common, know less and less about each others life’s and thus have little to talk about.

Why do things often turn out this way? Why is it some people who were once close stop communicating while others stay best friends throughout their whole lives?

Maybe it is the lack of that little extra effort to reach out that is missing? Just dropping somebody a note and see how they are doing can be enough to revitalize a relationship.
 

How Do You Stay In Touch?

Staying in touch with people you met throughout your life is not really that hard and absolutely not complicated. Write your friends a short note every now and then and just ask how they are doing, add their birthdays to your calendar and make sure to call them in person. Maybe you should decide to call one old friend per week and share some of your own life stories on social media so all your connections know what you are up to?

Not much effort is needed to stay in touch with old friends and acquaintances but it could be of great importance for you when a life crisis hits you or when you are in dire need for new professional activities and those are some very good reasons why you should keep building and maintaining a strong network.

Take the opportunity to talk and connect with people you meet in everyday life. Talk a bit and follow up later; it will serve you well at all times in your life.
 

Preparations For Successful Networking

When you have decided you should start networking or become a more efficient and successful networker you can, and probably should, make it easier for yourself and also increase the chances of success by making solid and thoughtful preparations.

These preparations include everything from mindset down to details such as dress code and nice business cards.    
 

Mentality For Networking

First out is your mentality. If you have a negative or skeptical mindset you need to address that. Being positive and self-confident goes a far way when it comes to being an attractive person to communicate and spending time with. If you are positive that will have an impact also on the people you meet, they will feel good about themselves and associate that feeling with you and right there half the job is done.

Another factor is to be open-minded, all the time. If you don’t give other people a chance you will always be on the loosing side, and it doesn’t matter whom you speak with. If you shut the door, or even hint at shutting the door, in their face they will feel it and immediately take a step back from you, which mean you have lost a good opportunity to meet and interact with another person.

You should also work on getting a positive and curious attitude, learn how to show genuine interest in other people and learn how to be an efficient communicator. It is not as hard as it sounds, try to focus on the positives around you, find interesting questions to ask and you are on your way to become a much more interesting person to speak with.

Having made these kinds of mental preparations will also help you handle the fear you might have for a networking situation. By creating a positive script and have thought through questions you will feel more at ease and be able to handle the fear that is so common when we enter new situations.  
 

Where Are You Going? Who Will Be There? What Does It Mean?

Needless to say it matters a lot for networking where you intend to do it and who you can expect to be there.

Adapting to other people is very important. There are many different cultures, educations, professions and interests out there. You have to understand how to deal with these differences if you want to become an efficient networker. If you fail to acknowledge the inter-human differences you are running the risk of becoming a liability for the community you are active in.

This doesn’t mean you should deny who you are and how you feel but rather you should bring out the parts of your being that match the setting you are in and try to be a bit careful when doing so. Eventually you will know more about the environment you are in and then you will be able to let more of yourself out.
 

Is It A Professional Networking- Or A Social Networking-Event?

When looking into what kind of event you are considering the question of whether it is a professional or a social event will be important. Many events might look like professional events but in reality it is professionals who are socializing with each other rather than people networking for professional reasons and your expectations should be set accordingly. It is usually much easier to get to the point regarding a professionally related topic at a clearly stated professional event but on the other hand you are usually able to build a much stronger relationship with professionals when you meet them socially.
 

What Are Your Reasons For Networking?

Finding your way to the right networking event and having a good and prosperous time at that networking event depends on your reasons for networking in the first place and why networking is important for you.

Some brutal honesty is in place here. Do you plan to network because you need it for your business or career, or because your boss has told you to do so? Maybe you attend networking events under a disguise of professionalism while in reality your core reasons are entirely social – you want to make and meet friends, have a good time in general and have no problem staying on for that extra hour or even continue the night down town?

The honest answers to these questions should be factored in when you decide which events to attend and also how you act at these events. Otherwise you might miss your target altogether and will be doing so under a cloud of general boredom.
 

Who Is Coming To The Event?

The question of who will attend a certain event is rather easy to answer today as social media and previous events are widely published and might also present you with the opportunity to introduce yourself to other guests before actually meeting them. If you introduce yourself online before the event you will have the advantage of being remembered more easily when you actually do meet the other guests at the event and that is a key success-factor for successful networking.

If you cannot find the appropriate event information online you can of course place an email or a call to the organizers and ask them, but keep in mind they most likely will exaggerate the number, seniority and status of the expected guests.
 

Elevator Pitch

An elevator pitch is a short story about yourself, your business or something else that is important for you and that you want to communicate to somebody else. It is called elevator pitch because you are supposed to be able to finish the story during a short ride in an elevator.

Having one, or several, prepared pitches about you can be a good way to feel more secure. You will have thought through who you are and what you want to achieve and you will be prepared to communicate that message. Make sure they are interesting and easy to remember.

And please don’t think this is something odd, many people do this and the more successful they are the more time they spend on messaging. Just consider politicians, businesses executives and others – they have whole teams working on their messages.
 

Hunt In Packs

If you know some of the potential guests it might of course be a good idea to meet up prior to the event and have a little pre chat where you also have the opportunity to meet some other newcomers in a relaxed setting before you attend the main event together.

Having one or several wingmen at your side at the event will make you feel more secure and thus make it more easy for you to initiate contact with new people as you will always have your wingmen to fall back on. Some people even bring somebody totally taken out of context just to have a fall back friend at the event.
 

Where Does The Event Take Place?

The event venue matters in many ways for networking. It is not just about finding the way there; it is also about what is around. Are there other venues in the area that can be used for pre-drinks, dinner, relaxed after-talks, do you know somebody working at the venue? Have you been there before, where can you park your car, can you eat there, are there several rooms, loud music or an opportunity to stay on after the event is over?
 

Community Culture

The community culture can be a challenge for newcomers to any event. Sometimes events are attended by a tight-knit community where everybody at least appears to know each other inside out and then it might feel like an obstacle for you to break into conversations and finding your way at the event. Sometimes the appearance of a tight-knit community is only a fiction as people act like they known each other since childhood but in reality they have just seen each other a few times before. This is very hard for you to know in advance though.

The same challenge is presented by the professional cultures at various events. Industry oriented events might feel very introvert and the guests are happy to use their most extreme professional jargon to further emphasize how important and special they are. If you realise the event is such an event and you are not a party to the industry in question you might just call it a day and leave instead of bouncing your head against the wall while looking like a fool.

Other cultural factors are age, strictness, mono- or multi-culture and gender division. Sometimes you will unfortunately find that some events are near fake as they might market themselves as for “senior management” while in reality all those seniors have sent their assistants in their place and whoever you speak with will have almost no decision-making power at their respective companies. 
 

The Host

At any event special consideration should be given to the event host. Try to find out who is the host of the event and connect with him or her prior to the event by a short message or similar – which will make it easier for them to remember you. The host is most likely the most networked person at the event and therefore a key person to reach out to and say a few words to so he or she remember you. You should also reconnect with the host before you leave the event and say a few words of gratitude. As very few event guests do this simple thing you will stick out from the mass and increase the chances of being remembered in a positive way many times over.  
 

Dress Code - Stick Out Like A Peacock

All events have a dress code. That is just a fact; the question is just if it is stated officially or an unspoken part of the event culture.

Using the dress code to your advantage can mean that you will be noticed in a positive way immediately as you enter the event and that will save you a lot of time. There are plenty of good examples of people who have used this technique – on purpose or not – to their advantage. Colors, hairstyle, clothing and accessories can all be used to achieve this effect.

A word of caution when using the peacock approach – try not to look like you are from a galaxy far, far away as that might do more damage than good. There are costume parties where you can live out your wildest fantasies. 

And, of course, before you dress up you might want to look at photos from previous events so you know in which direction you should stick out.

The peacock approach carries a risk so if you are not ready for it, or feel threatened by the very idea, you should try to fit in with the group instead of sticking out of it.
 

Does The Event Have A Program?

Is there a program for the event and certain activities that will take place? The event schedule can have an impact on when you should arrive, what if you are there to meet people but arrive at a time when casual conversations are obstructed by a program? Try to find out as much as possible before the event and ask the organisers – they surely know the flow of the event regardless of whether it has an official program or not.
 

What Are The Languages Spoken At The Event?

It is not very easy to attend an event where you don’t master the language spoken. If you need – bring a friend or a colleague that knows the event language. Surely some people at the event will speak one or several of the more international languages but whom they are and which international language they speak might be harder to find out. One advantage of being the odd alien is that you are likely to attract attention and might even be specially taken care of by other guests or the host. Most event organisers like to boast that their events are international.
 

Always Have a Good Time

Don’t get stuck being tense or over-focused. Try to relax, smile and have a good time. Whatever your reason for networking is your attitude will have an impact on your chances of achieving your goal – and of just having a good time at the event.
 

Business Cards

Print nice and easy to understand business cards. Make sure all relevant details are there but don’t add too much information. The business card should be easy to read in a short time. You can apply the peacock theory also on your business card and make it stick out so you will easier be remembered but, again, it is a risk and it might backfire. 
 

Networking In Action

This is the central chapter in this book where we will, step-by-step; walk through how to act and what to say at an actual networking event.

 

We will address the entire chain of events from entering a networking event all the way through how to make a nice and professional closing.  
 

Make An Entrance And Get Noticed

If you are not noticed at events and remembered after them you are not likely to build a strong and lasting network. There are a few tricks you can use to be noticed, appreciated and remembered when meeting other people and these tricks also have the advantage of adding great value, both to the event as a whole and to the people you speak with there.

 

Break Into Conversation

Cocktail Party Theory

Imagine a cocktail party, what is the first thing you observe when you enter the room? Many of us see who are standing in groups and some who are on their own. How do we see these different people? Chances are that you perceive the people surrounded by others as more influential people with higher status than the people standing by themselves. After all humans are flock animals with a strong instinct for pecking orders.

We shall use these emotions to our advantage and make others see us as the most important person at the event, a person nobody can ignore or forget.
 

Smile And Be Liked

Smiling and looking accessible is by far the best way to communicate to everybody present that you are friendly and open for a conversation. It’s also something that naturally charismatic people seem to be doing almost all the time. Try to think about this even if you have a bad day, as that bad day can turn even worse if your surrounding perceive you as unfriendly.

As we described in the previous chapter preparations are important and now that you are dressed to be noticed and smile like the happiest person on the planet you will see that other persons are more than happy to greet you and as you greet them back you can easily open up conversations and small talk. Now others are already noticing you as somebody who attracts other people – your status at the event is rising and it will be much easier for you to find people to talk to.
 

How To Open Up A Conversation?

Introduce yourself

As you are walking into the networking event, smiling and with self-confidence you will very soon make eye contact with somebody and the ability to hold laser eye contact is one of those traits that communicate power and status.

That’s when you should act! Just turn towards that person and introduce yourself. A simple “Hello, my name is [INSERT YOUR NAME], how are you?” is a good start. 

If you shake hands you should be aware that the combination of a firm handshake with eye contact signals trust and reliability and will enhance your position as a friendly yet serious person. Then say something. It could be anything. Being spontaneous is a sign of being genuine.

You wait for the other person to respond and then you follow up with an open-ended question. An open-ended question cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. By asking open questions you trigger more of a conversation than with closed question as the other person has to respond in a way that you can follow up on. Try to avoid any matter that can be perceived as sensitive.

Examples of open question that are soft and non-sensitive:

  • How did you find out about this event?
  • Where are you from?
  • How often do you come here? 
  • What can you suggest in terms of activities in this city?

When you listen and ask follow up questions you should keep in mind that listening is more important than talking as everybody enjoy when somebody listen to them.

• Introduce and pitch yourself

• Find good topics of conversation

If the other person hands you his business card you should hold it in your hand for a while and read it carefully several times. This is for several reasons; you show respect, interest and have a chance to repeat the other persons name a few times, which increase the chance you will remember that person and his or her name. 
 

Signal Status

Make sure you are not scaring the person you just introduced yourself to by closing in too much. In many cultures people fear getting too close to other people so use this to your advantage by putting one foot at the side as if you are about to move on at any time. That will not only make the other person not feeling stalked but at the same time signal that you are a self confident person with status who is not needy but will easily find somebody else to talk with if needed.
 

How To Deal With Rejection And How To Reject

What if that somebody you introduced yourself to stonewalls you or even walks away right then and there? Don’t get bothered by this but consider the rudeness to be the other person’s problem. It can also be that the other person has a really bad day, is crazily busy or preoccupied with some serious issues. If you have acted with curtsey and not been too intense you should not let any of this get to you. Just turn around and proceed to the next person.

If you are the one who feel it’s time to move on or feel like the person you interact with is too much for you it is of course possible you should pull out and move on. When doing so you should use tact and be polite. The best thing to do is to excuse yourself to go get a drink, visit the restroom, declare you have an important phone call to make or similar. Try not to leave any bad aftertaste whatsoever when you move on. You always want to leave a good and lasting impression.
 

Don’t Linger – Move On

Try not to linger at a networking event. Be polite, curious and inclusive but try to make a full round at the event even if you have a really good time with a person you met early on. After all you are at the event to network and to do so properly you need to meet as many people as possible and understand who they are and how your chemistry with them is.

Once you have made walked around and spoken to a lot of people you can make your way back to people you found to be of special interest and continue the conversation with them. Most networking events are long enough for you to manage to both walk the floor and spend time with people you find to be of special interest.
 

Small Talk

Once you have walked around the room to introduce yourself you should have a pretty good idea about who are the persons you want to talk with more. Quietly walk back to them and pick up the conversation again. As you are most likely to get back to the people you had the best initial connection with they are likely to receive you well and it will be easy to strike up another conversation, small talk.
 

Why Is Small Talk Important?

Moving from a greeting to a conversation to a relationship is key to forming friendships and relationships related to business or other affairs of life. Small talk is what makes that progress happen.
 

The Emotional Aspect Of Small Talk

Making somebody feel comfortable when talking with you makes the whole process of getting somewhere in your relationship building much easier than if the other person feel uncomfortable because you rush or is too intense.

Giving positive attention by being a good listener, asking follow up questions and follow the other persons mimic – laugh when they laugh, smile when they smile, lean forward when they do, lean back when they do etc - are good ways to make somebody feel comfortable.

Acting in this way makes it easier for the other person to open up and share more of his or her thoughts and that is when you know you are onto something, then you can also open up more and then you are in the friendship making territory.

By being attentive to others behaviors, mirror them when they are interacting with you and doing what you can to make them comfortable such as asking soft questions and giving them positive attention you will quickly get their positive responses and people at the entire event will see the positive atmosphere around you. Your star will continue to rise and if you keep it up you will have much to gain, as others will now seek you out whenever they see you, not only at this event but also at other events where they see you. You have become a networking star and your professional network will grow fast.

Now there are just a few more things to consider maintaining your successful networking momentum.

Some key things to remember when practicing small talk

• Be inclusive, when other people show up – bring them into the conversation

• Sticky stories – tell things about yourself and what you do that people will remember

• Share useful information and contacts make introductions and add value

• Use names frequently to make sure people in the group remember the names of people you already know
 

Expanding To Real Friendship

Once you have reached friendship-making territory you are still not friends. You need to follow up and continue to build on the relationship.

Maybe you can suggest having lunch or a coffee? Those are low-key activities that might just be about business but can also be a way towards friendship. The more often you meet the person the better you will know if this is a friend or if you will end up being acquaintances.

Not getting to a real friendship is not the end of the world. Most people you know are probably acquaintances and not friends; you can’t be best friends forever with everybody – that kind of close relationship is reserved for a smaller amount of people.
 

Networking Pitfalls

There are many pitfalls when networking. Below is a list of some of the most common mistakes people make:

  • Being too intrusive about other people’s lives
  • Choosing the wrong topics, like religion and politics
  • Being negative
  • Being too personal about oneself
  • Not creating enough interest. Showing lack of imagination
  • Being rude in message, language or tone
  • Showing signs of an obvious agenda
  • Selling. People smell a sales pitch miles away. Wait for the other person to ask you instead
  • Being overly flattering. It can be perceived as not being genuine but it’s really hard to find the right level between showing interest, being polite and flattering somebody. Cultural differences and personality play a major role here
  • Never follow another person around without being shown signs of being invited to do so like the other person saying: Let’s go out, lets sit over there etc
  • Fiddling with the telephone in other people’s presence
     

Closing

If you have mingled around and talked with other people before you leave the event you should return to persons you have had a good talk with and say a proper good bye

When the networking event is coming to a close there are a few things that are important to remember to make sure you got the most value from the event. Try to reconnect with all the people you have had a conversation with, walk up to them and just say that you are leaving and that it was nice to see them. Most people don’t do this, which in this case is an advantage for you. It also provides you with an opportunity to make a last good impression to make sure the other person remember you.

The last, and most important, person you should speak with before leaving is the host. Make sure you walk up to the host and express your gratitude to him or her for organizing the event and that you look forward to any future events or other opportunities to meet. Also this is something most people don’t do so also here you have an advantage, and as stated above the host is probably by far the person with the most connections at the event, which even further underlines the importance of creating marinating a good relationship and a good start is to make sure the host remember you and remember you in a positive way. 
 

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