Networking is an essential skill to succeed in your career, and you shouldn’t only scramble to do it when you are looking for a new job. If you wait until you really need a great network to find your next job, it is too late. You should get in the habit of building and cultivating your network on an ongoing basis, no matter what. Is anyone born a great networker? Perhaps, but not likely. Can you learn to become one? Yes! And is it still important to network in a post-COVID world when you may be spending more time working remotely? Absolutely! Now more than ever.
You may be asking yourself, “Since I am happy in my job and in my career, why should I bother networking?” Because you never know what will happen next. Look no further than how quickly the world changed in the spring of 2020. I worked with successful executives who had 25-plus-year careers at companies who went from a glidepath toward continued success and eventual retirement on their terms, to being out of a job, disconnected and not even knowing where to begin. It was a jarring, scary and humbling turn of events for so many.
Or fast forward to the fall of 2021, and we are now in the midst of “The Great Resignation” and one of the toughest labor markets in decades for employers. Everyone I know is trying to find great people and fill empty roles on their teams. Who do you think is best positioned to get the word out about their openings? The person who has a strong network and has consistently helped others whenever possible? Or the person who has not bothered to log into LinkedIn since the last time they switched jobs?
Perhaps you feel stuck at your current career level, want to learn a new skill or there is a new challenge you want to tackle but are not sure how to start. Networking can help you answer each of these questions.
If you want to learn to become a better networker, regardless of which stage of your career you are in, I recommend you start with these five tips:
- Don’t be shy! For some, even the thought of reaching out to someone you don’t know well may fill you with a sense of dread. It shouldn’t. People appreciate (re)connecting more than you would ever imagine — and especially so with a fellow Darden alum. Afterall, being able to tap into the Darden network is one of the greatest benefits of your degree. Take advantage of it! And while many enjoy the benefits of remote work, they are missing the social interactions of the office, the unplanned connections at conferences, or simply getting to meet someone new and interesting.
- Remember what you bring to the table. The best networking relationships are a two-way street. If you are just starting out in your career and want to connect with executives in your target industry, it may seem like a daunting task. If you dig deep, perhaps you could help them connect to a new talent pool through your peers or professional organizations you belong to. Or you may be able to share your unique insights from your experiences in unrelated fields, either personal or professional. We all bring a lifetime of unique experiences, skills and stories to our interactions.
- Make it a habit; practice makes perfect. The more you network, the better you get at it. Listen, ask questions and listen some more. If you do it right, you can develop genuine friendships and expand your circle. Many of us know how hard it is to make new friends in your 30s, 40s and beyond. Intentional and targeted networking can yield many unintended benefits. Pre-COVID, I would advise young professionals to make an effort to reach out and meet one new person each week. My advice remains the same today. Schedule a coffee, a happy hour or a Zoom with someone you don’t know in your organization, industry or neighborhood. You never know what you may learn, or who you could meet.
- LinkedIn is your friend. Keep your profile up to date, and make sure you have a recent profile picture. You should already be part of the Darden LinkedIn group, but also join your undergraduate alma mater, company, and veterans or industry networking groups. Reach out and connect with those you worked with before, although be wary of spamming people or accepting requests from those you have never met unless you understand the context (i.e., a fellow Darden alum). Many companies share key messaging with existing and prospective employees via LinkedIn and social media. Make it a practice to log in at least once a week to see what is going on in your network. And LinkedIn makes it so easy to find peers or prospective employers in any alumni group you may be a part of, especially via 2nd and 3rd degree connections. See here for more tips on building out your brand via your LinkedIn profile.
- Enjoy it and make a positive impact. Meeting new people is fun. Hearing stories and listening intently about the steps others took to succeed can be inspiring. In fact, you should make it a point to pay it forward. None of us succeed on our own, and you should lend a helping hand to those who are climbing the ladder behind you. Not only is it the right thing to do, but knowing you have been able to make a positive impact on someone’s life simply by responding to a networking request and helping however you can is tremendously rewarding. And you never know when you’ll be on the other side of that request.
By becoming intentional about your networking practices, you can expand your sphere of influence and gain additional perspective about your current path and career goals. Perhaps you may even become a connector, being known as someone who can ask good questions and point people in the right direction. Your good practices can continually enhance both your brand and Darden’s alumni network. And who knows, one day that person you responded to even though you didn’t quite feel like it may help you in ways you couldn’t dream of today. It’s a small world. No one succeeds alone. We’re all in this together.
Now ask yourself: What will your networking plan be and for what purpose?