Networking Is Not a Dirty Word

I confess: I was once one of those people who thought the evil word “networking” meant standing awkwardly at cocktail parties, making boring, polite conversation. It seemed so stilted and fake.

But if that’s what networking means to you, you’re doing it wrong. Networking is not a dirty word. It can be fun, social and provide you opportunities in your career and personal life that you couldn’t have imagined. Trust me. I’m more of an introvert than not, and I’ve come to (mostly) enjoy networking and have certainly found value in it.Two women sit laughing together at a coffee shop table outdoors, leaning forward on the table, each holding a disposable coffee cup.

I started forcing myself to network more when I started my own business in 2013. And like with anything, practice has helped me to improve. But I am always looking for more tips, so last week I attended the “Networking for Career Success” event sponsored by the Washington Network Group (WNG). I joined WNG soon after I started MelEdits because of a great event on “going independent” that the organization hosted. I’ve been impressed ever since with the quality of events, as well as the contacts I’ve made at WNG happy hours.

“Networking for Career Success” was a WNG Career Development Roundtable and was led by WNG Chair Bill Stokes, an executive search consultant, and Sean McColl, executive coach and managing director of Next Level Leadership Inc. I had had helpful and interesting previous conversations with both of them, so I knew this event would offer a few great tips.

Bill and Sean served as facilitators, allowing a free-flowing, two-hour interactive discussion among the large group of about 40. One benefit of WNG events is that you meet people from several different types of careers and industries — it’s important to get away from your own industry now and again.

Here are my take-aways:

  • You can’t wait to network until you are looking for a new job. You need to be networking all the time. It ebbs and flows, but if you don’t network for five years because you are in one career position and then try to suddenly meet people and beg for a new job, well … that just doesn’t work.
  • Even extroverts sometimes hate networking. I think many introverts in the group were surprised, yet relieved, to hear a few self-proclaimed extroverts say how much they dislike heading to a networking event. But registering and paying ahead of time usually forces you to go (well, I already spent $20 on this …), and once you get there, it’s rarely as bad as you anticipated.
  • Set networking goals for each event. For example, tell yourself you are going to meet five people, and when you hit that goal, give yourself permission to leave.
  • Prepare for the event by having a mental list of questions to get the conversation
    Don’t start with the No. 1 D.C. question “What do you do?” Be creative and ask questions that might not even pertain to work. Examples: What was the best thing that happened to you all week? What do you like to do to relax? So, how about those Redskins/Nats/Capitals?
  • Follow up in the moment. If you meet someone you want to get to know better, ask during the networking event, “Would you be willing to have coffee sometime?”
  • Write notes on their business cards. During the event or immediately after, write keywords on a person’s business card that will help you remember who he or she was and how you want to connect. For example: “loves sailing, coaches soccer. can help my org. build apps.” Don’t wait until the next day when your memory will have faded.
  • Create a personal brand. What is your unique voice? What can you offer people? Start with your elevator speech and expand from there, so that you’re prepared to confidently and succinctly say what you are looking for or how you can help others.
  • Become a leader in your field. Be brave and submit proposals to speak at conferences on your area of expertise. Create a LinkedIn group on your key topic, which will lead to new people following you personally.

And my own contributions to the conversation:

  • Incorporate networking into your business plan or career goals. If you own your own business, networking goes hand-in-hand with marketing. Set goals of how many monthly events you will attend, how many lunches or coffee meetings you will set up and how many conferences you will attend each year.
  • Check out local co-working spaces, especially if you’re looking for entrepreneurs or startups. I’ve made some great connections and friends through Silver Spring’s Creative Colony. Although I’m not a member, I frequently attend their monthly Creative Boost sessions and happy hours. An unexpected benefit is that I’ve made great connections in the city I live in and frequently run into these new friends at our local farmer’s market, restaurants or the movies.

How do you feel about networking? What tips would you add to this list?

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