Recently, I moved to a small town, several hours away from my friends and family. I brought along my daughter, my boyfriend and boxes filled with hopes and aspirations. Since I have been living in a large metro area for many years, I wasn't quite prepared for the slower pace of this small water town. I didn't know anyone, and it seemed that the only way to get things done around here was by knowing the right people.
The first month we were here, we would often see people around town who looked like they would be the people to get to know, but introducing myself and becoming friends seemed difficult. After all, just going up to random people around town and asking them to be your friend doesn't work well. What I ended up doing was using networking skills to try to build a social network that would support my goals, interests and help me get the information I needed.
Successful networking requires a clearly defined strategy. You have to set out with a plan, rather than just waiting for opportunity to knock on your door. Although I had a crash course in networking by moving away from my support group, you can use these same skills to build your professional network and further your career.
Here are 5 keys to successful networking:
Always be ready. You never know when a good networking opportunity will come, so you have to be prepared and keep looking for them. When I am walking around my new town, sometimes I will run into someone who I've met before and they will introduce me to other people. My boyfriend and I often joke that we never know what will happen when we go outside and we can't even guess at how long we will be gone. There have been days when we were just going to walk a couple blocks to the grocery store but ended up having cocktails with a few people who had tons of information and connections. Don't wait for a networking event, make your own events and keep your eyes open for new ways to connect with others.
Take notes. Bringing a notebook around with you can feel uncomfortable, but taking notes is a great way to remember names and other information. I keep a small notebook in my purse, along with a pack of nice stationery cards, because you never know when you might need to leave a note for someone or send a thank you note. Having them on hand makes it easy. However, I have started using my smartphone as a networking tool. I have a notepad app, and when I am talking to someone, I wait until an appropriate time and then log the names of the people I met, along with a few identifiers. This way, I can refresh my memory later. Also, it's a good idea to write down the main things you talked about or key information about the person.
Be interested. Networking isn't just about getting what you need from nameless, faceless contacts. It's about meeting new people and finding out about them. You have to actually be interested in who they are and what they are all about. When you're interested, you will ask questions that will build the friendship and give you insight into who they are.
Look for ways to help. The old adage that you have to give to get is still true. Look for ways to get involved in your community, in a volunteer group or other organization. When you are willing to get involved and lend a hand, you won't be as focused on what you need. This is good. No one wants a one-sided friendship. Helping others is also a great way to get to know them and give them the chance to get to know you as well.
Think about your personal brand or reputation. In a small town, like mine, a reputation is important. A bad reputation is all it takes to make people you don't even know think that you are a bad person. Your reputation and your personal brand are pretty much the same thing. Protect it and be aware of how the choices you make can affect it. If you make commitments, keep them and make sure that your behavior stays in line with your personal beliefs.
Networking can be fun and it can give you a platform to jump into new career opportunities. Come up with a networking plan and put it in to action. You never know where it might lead.