First things first: very few people actively like networking. Even those of us who are naturally good at it don’t joyfully bounce into a room full of strangers, thinking ‘great, these are friends/colleagues/clients I haven’t met yet!’.
But networking is an essential skill in a working world that sets great store by relationships. Networking doesn’t quite make the world go around, but there’s a reason ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ is a cliche. We could devote a whole other blog to the ethics of that, but the fact is humans are social creatures, and our social connections matter. Having a strong network can help you find a job, hire great new talent, and find customers. For people professionals dealing with complex and confidential issues everyday, having a supportive network of peers to whom you can pick up the phone after a challenging day is also immensely valuable.
In my past roles as editor of various business magazines and in my current role as senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, I network constantly. That means I’ve developed plenty of tricks to help me survive yet another wine reception, breakfast or awards dinner (my life is hard, I know). Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way…
What’s your goal?
You are investing your time, so consider setting goals to help you use it wisely. If you can get hold of a delegate list in advance, think about who you want to meet. You might even research them and their interests to help plan conversation topics. I enter any event with one simple goal: if I leave having spoken to one new person who I can follow up with, and having had one stimulating conversation, then it was worthwhile. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to ‘work’ the entire room. One quality in-person interaction could be the start of a beautiful working relationship.
First things first
Walking into that room can be scary, especially if you don’t know anyone. If you’re flying solo, you have two options: join a group that looks welcoming or find another loner to speak to. (There is no secret third option for hiding in the loos on your phone, I’m afraid.) The people profession tends to be a warm and friendly one, so there is no harm in walking up to a group and asking to join them. I find an upfront approach the best one: ‘Do you mind if I join you? What are you talking about?’ Alternatively, find someone who looks as lost as you feel and team up. Good initial questions to start with include ‘do you come to these kind of things a lot?’, discussing the topic of any content, or commenting on how lovely/bizarre (delete as appropriate) the venue is.
If you’re feeling nervous, the best approach in any conversation is to focus your attention on whoever you are speaking to and ask them lots of questions about themselves. These could be work related – I often go for ‘What’s the best thing about your job’ – or personal. At work events, it can be all too easy for people to turn into corporate robots, but we all have lives outside of work and these are often the easiest way to form a genuine personal connection. We are all human and have similar insecurities – remember that.
A graceful exit
You might be happy with only speaking to one or two people all night, but what about when you want to end a conversation and try speaking to someone else? You could take a direct approach: ‘It was lovely to meet you; I’m going to go and speak to a few more people.’ If that feels too cold, you can tell people you need to go to the toilet or the bar (holding onto an empty glass helps here) and drift away.
If you want to pursue any of the conversations you’ve had and develop your connections, following up is key. Easiest is to add people you met on LinkedIn with a personal note referencing your conversation. If you have their contact details, there’s no harm in dropping them a note to say how much you enjoyed meeting them. If you would like to develop the relationship further, suggest a coffee or lunch at a later date. Cultivate and nurture your relationships over time, meeting up periodically to keep the connection alive. If this isn’t possible, the occasional note asking how they are goes a long way.
With so much of life conducted online now, is it possible to build relationships solely behind a screen? In my opinion, no. Online relationships can supplement in-person ones, and I’ve met many people IRL after first forming a connection online. If you know your online connections are going to the same event then arranging to meet up beforehand can help you feel more comfortable as you’ll have an established ‘gang’. If you want to begin building an online network, think about your online persona. I’ve found authenticity and combining work and personal to be most effective. Try Twitter events like #HRHour to get involved with conversations with likeminded professionals. As a general rule, don’t say anything online you wouldn’t say to someone’s face or on a conference stage – or be proud telling your mum about. It’s basically key advice for life here: don’t be a jerk.
Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, working to build a community of HR leaders. She can be contacted on email@example.com