Networking: Five Ways to Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Years ago, when I took on my first full on recruiter job, I was told that I needed to “build a network”. As I look back on what that meant to me at the time, it meant pretty much nothing. So, I hit the blog world and audio books, starting with the basics such as The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. I started experimenting with different ways of communicating and eventually catching on to the now second nature vocabulary that includes words like “leveraging” and “follow up”.

What I didn’t know then, and what you may not know now, is that we have all been building the relationships that can lead to networking our whole lives. Networking is simply using these relationships to help reach a goal. Whether you are a stay at home parent, a working mom, or a new entrepreneur, chances are, you already know people that can help you with whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

Here’s an example, Mommy Mary is working on a scrapbook of Tiny Tommy’s kindergarten year. On the Christmas concert page, the perfect addition would be copy of the program handed out to parents at the event. The problem is, Mommy Mary can’t find her copy of the program anywhere. Mommy Mary knows that Tiny Tommy is  friends with Billy Buddy, the son of PTO Patty.  As President of the school PTO, Patty was involved in the creation and ordering of the Christmas Programs. Mary arranges a play date for Tommy and Billy, and invites Patty to have coffee with her during the play date. During the coffee hour, Mary shows Patty her scrapbook progress and points out the space where she would like to place the program. She asks Patty if she knew of any extra programs that existed and where she could find one. After thinking for a moment Patty remembers that there is an extra box of programs in a storage closet at the school. She happily tells Mary she would grab one during the next PTO meeting and drop it off at her house. The following week, Patty dropped the program off to Mary, leaving it in her mailbox. Mary returned a simple “thank you” text, including an offer to return the favor, should PTO Patty ever need help.

So. This example may seem more like a description of a favor. I’ve learned that favors are simply the driver of the coined term “networking”. Leveraging a relationship, or someone you know (a connection) to help you with something; and likewise opening yourself to return the favor in the future. However, while a favor may be the goal of using your network, the most important thing to keep in mind, is that these interactions must be genuine in order to be effective. In the example above, when Mommy Mary invited PTO Patty over for coffee and a play date for their boys, she must genuinely want to enjoy their company for the connection to be meaningful. Some professionals even sum up networking to be simply a different angle to describe friendship.

Hopefully you are catching my drift on what it means to use a network. Just to push the point a little further,  building a professional network is a process (dare I say journey). Once you start taking steps to build meaningful relationships, it becomes your choice to keep them going and how to leverage them to further your goals. I have and still look to demonstrated professionals to guide me on using this concept to help others and help myself. The list below shows some of the ways in which I have created my network and how I further it every day.

  1.    Love your LinkedIn account.

         If you don’t use it right, LinkedIn can seem spammy. I’ve heard jokes before that sound something like “LinkedIn is half recruiters, half salespeople!” I am not claiming to have done any research to discredit this claim, but even if this is true, LinkedIn has been a valuable tool for my networking. Here’s the thing. If you have a LinkedIn account, people who may have a value offering for you can find you. Say you were at the gym awhile ago, you got to talking to some guy in which you mentioned that you are working in supply chain and you have a bachelors degree. Three months later, the guy at the gym, who turns out to be a logistics manager, is having a hard time finding a supply chain analyst to work in his department. He thinks of you, finds you on LinkedIn and asks if you are interested or if you have any referrals. Maybe you weren’t interested, but you were able to refer a previous co-worker who recently told you he was on the job market. In one action, you were able to leverage a connection to do a favor and build trust with two people. If you don’t have one, create a LinkedIn profile, and start building your LinkedIn followers by connecting with people you work with, and any others that you have professional conversations with.

2.    Have a coffee date, just because.

I cannot say enough how important it is that the relationships you build in your networking efforts are genuine. When I landed my first recruitment job and was advised to build my network, I first looked to people I already knew to help me. I turned to LinkedIn to get in touch with an old college friend that was also working in the area as a recruiter. Aside from the occasional facebook like, we hadn’t spoken for years, but we met up for happy hour at a local restaurant and talked for at least two hours. We spent time catching up, reminiscing, and giving each other advice. Over time, we built both a better friendship and a business connection. I eventually ended up helping her husband land a job interview. Also, my friend was recruiting for a major company in the area. Some of the insights I gleaned from our conversations later proved to be useful “inside knowledge” that gave me an edge when recruiting. I also recently heard of an example of a remote worker, new to his company, turning to LinkedIn to find other employees of this company that are located near him. He then reached out to invite this person for coffee, it turned out to be this person in a complementary department in the company and the pair are now a valuable resource to each other.

3.    Ask prompting questions, people love to hear themselves talk!

Have you ever been out with someone, and all you learned about is their kids dietary preferences? I have, and listening to how Johnny hates when his broccoli is touching the mashed potatoes for an hour can be just as entertaining as listening to a congressional filibuster about farming grants. If you talked to both participants of this kind of conversation, Johnny’s parent likely had an enjoyable time, but the receiver of the detailed diet plan did not. I conduct often as many as a dozen interviews daily, and what I have learned, is that people LOVE to talk about themselves. When having a conversation with anyone on a professional level or otherwise, you can easily earn quick brownie points  by asking people questions that allow them to talk about their circumstances or their thoughts. The key to having a valuable conversation is to ask questions steering conversation to be about things you are genuinely interested in. For example, to people interviewing for a job, I always recommend exercising this in the very last minutes of an interview. When the interviewer asks if there are any questions, respond with something like “I admire where you are at in your career, could you share what it was that led you to pursue a career in customer service?” This accomplishes two things, it gives you insight on what motivates the interviewer, and it ends the conversation with the interviewer feeling good, and that is definitely what you want when walking away from an interview.

4.    Listen for business needs, and offer to do small favors. 

This is the key that I have found not a lot of people practice, which will help you stand out. If you hear someone mention a problem they are trying to solve that you might be able to help with, speak up! If you’re talking to a new entrepreneur who mentions they are having trouble finding a reputable marketing service, and you remember reading a great article about a couple service offerings in your area, promise to track it down and send them the link. This will be a positive step in building trust with your connection and proving to offer valuable resources.

5.    Follow up, follow up, follow up. Did I say follow up?

Everyone hates that cheesy car salesman who spends your valuable time trying to sell you a specific car that doesn’t match what you’re looking for.  Before you leave the dealership without a deal, you tell him that you really want a three row SUV, he writes it down, along with your contact information and promises to call you. But, you never hear from him. Three weeks later, you’re breaking in your new Dodge Durango purchased from the dealership across the street.  The point is, all of the networking efforts you make are useless if you don’t follow up. If your business holds a marketing event, and you collect contact information from interested customers, but never call them back, you are not maximizing your ROI. Not only that, but an opportunity to demonstrate to your customers that you can be trusted on their business has been missed. Not only is this sales 101, but it is also what stabilizes any business or otherwise connection. In the earlier example of promising to forward an article about marketing services, it is best if this small promise can be delivered within 24 hours. Again, with the end goal being to build trust amongst your network.

Added note: Embrace the uncomfortable!

I once read a blog that made a case for starting your own business. One of the key points stated “get comfortable feeling uncomfortable”.  Everyone has situations that they feel downright uncomfortable putting themselves out there. In the trenches of the early efforts of building your professional network, it can be hard to rip off the band aid and start reaching out to loosely known colleagues. But with time and practice, building these relationships and asking the right questions will become second nature. This, I can say I’ve lived out myself. My husband jokes that I am a “serial recruiter” known to give my business card to unwitting restaurant managers and even grocery clerks. It is important to note though, that personal safety is always your top priority. Always meet up with new connections in public places, like a Starbucks or other busy coffee shop. And, when possible, provide your business contact information instead of your personal details such as your home phone or address.

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