For many, the mention of the word networking conjures up unsettling images of hundreds of men and women exchanging business cards, making small talk and angling for a chance to ask that all-important question: "So, who do you know in my field?"
Even the most extroverted people may not get excited about this process, but it's especially painful for shy individuals, who prefer to talk to people one-on-one and are more sensitive about personal boundaries. But the good news is it's possible to network in a more comfortable, structured way that's respectful of people.
Do I Have To?
Yes. Networking is crucial for your career, but it doesn't have to mean cold calls or awkward conversations with strangers. Here are some tips that will come in handy, whether you're testing a new field's waters, researching an organization or looking for references:
- Start with Friends and Family: Make a long list of friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, coworkers, your daughter's basketball coach, etc. Assess the list, and prioritize whom you'll contact.
- Try Setting Up Informational Interviews with Friends of Friends: The friend in common will be a good topic for an icebreaker when you meet or speak on the phone.
- Do Your Research: Interviews and screening conversations are less stressful if you're prepared. Make sure you do your homework on a company before you meet with one of its executives to find out about the business or opportunities. You will not be at a loss for what to say, you will feel more confident, and the more prepared you are, the more likely the meeting will be productive.
- Use the Contacts You Didn't Realize You Already Had: Perhaps you already belong to a group, whether it's a volunteer organization or a book club, and you can start to build contacts there. You never know what contacts may be just a conversation away from you already.
- Explore Social Networking: It can be easier to talk to people through a computer. Check out the major social networking sites and let your contacts know you're looking for work.
- Use Your College Connections: Contact your school's alumni office to find mentors or contacts. These mentors have to give their permission to be listed, so you already know they'll be open to communicating with you. And you'll have your common college experience to relate to. Make sure you do your research for these contacts too.
- Take Advantage of Local Networking Events: Some organizations, like local Chamber of Commerce groups, offer breakfast meetings or other structured networking events that provide a more relaxing and comfortable environment in which to connect. It's easier to enter a room for the purpose of networking when you know everyone else is doing the same thing.