Four Tips on Building a Network

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My job as Outreach Manager at The Herald Group requires building and maintaining hundreds of relationships with advocates, scholars and academics across Washington, DC, and around the country—which in turn means a lot of coffee, lunches and evening receptions. I often hear, “I don’t know how you go to all of these events,” or “I hate networking, I could never do your job.” Sure, entering a room full of people you’ve never met can be intimidating, but most of the common advice around “networking” is setting people up to fail. Read any blog on networking and you’ll be instructed to print business cards, schedule coffee meetings and go to networking events with no insight in to how to make these actions useful.

I prefer the term “building a network.” It’s intentional, done with purpose and doesn’t insinuate wandering aimlessly around a cocktail hour. You are diligently and genuinely identifying who to build relationships with and adding them to your professional network. Whether it’s searching for a new job, finding new business opportunities or establishing yourself within your field, a network of mutually beneficial relationships is essential to achieving your goals and raising your capital in your field.

So how do you build your network? Here are a few helpful steps:

1. Be a Resource

When first building a relationship, keep your focus on how you can help the other person, not on what you can get out of it. What issues do they focus on and how can you become a resource of information to them? Maybe it’s providing them with new data or research for an upcoming project or inviting them to an event you know would be beneficial to them. Whenever I make a new connection I try to think of at least one current contact I have that they should meet. The more you establish yourself as a resource and a connector in your given field, the more others will want to become a resource to you.

2. Be the Receiver, Not the Giver, of Business Cards

Complete an internship or attend any career-oriented seminar in DC and the first thing out of most speakers’ mouths is, “make sure you have business cards.” Sure, you should have a card, but this advice has created many overeager “networkers” bounding around happy hours passing out business cards like a broken ticket machine at Chuck E Cheese. I’m not sure there is a better way to guarantee you never hear from someone than handing them your card before you finish shaking hands.

It is much better to receive business cards and put yourself in control of the follow-up as opposed to handing them out aimlessly. Have a brief, meaningful conversation, then politely ask for their card in order to keep in touch and continue the conversation.

3. Follow Up

After you make a new connection, don’t let their contact information sit on your desk for months before they hear from you again. Definitely don’t let the next time they hear from you be a desperate email asking for something on short notice. When you make a new contact at an event that you’d like to build a relationship with, send a follow-up email and make a plan for lunch or coffee. Don’t send an email saying, “Hey (insert name), it was great meeting you last night. Would love to grab coffee sometime, look forward to staying in touch.” This type of follow-up is lazy and unlikely to lead to anything.

Instead, be efficient, and send an email that will lead to your next productive interaction. “(Insert Name), It was great to meet you last night, I enjoyed chatting about X. I’d love to continue our conversation over coffee at a location that is convenient for you. I’m available on (provide three dates and times). If one of these doesn’t work for you, send me three times that are best for you and I’ll gladly make it work. Look forward to hearing from you.” This type of follow-up eliminates 20 back and forth scheduling emails or a “nice to meet you too” response that is likely the end of your potential valuable new relationship.

4. Get Coffee (With a Purpose)

Whether you’ve made a new contact and successfully scheduled a follow-up meeting, or cold emailed someone and are meeting for the first time, have a purpose for the meeting. Once you get past the initial pleasantries, make it clear early in the meeting why a relationship with you can be valuable to them (be a resource) in a genuine way.

If meeting with an expert or top performer in their respective field, do your research and come prepared with insightful questions. Get beyond “what are your thoughts on X?” and try to ask questions you don’t think they’ve been asked before. This shows that you’re actively thinking about their field and can potentially provide insight or spark ideas they haven’t considered in the past.

Building a network takes patience and can be uncomfortable at first, but will lead to new opportunities and relationships to advance your goals. Keep the four tips above in mind and you will be well ahead of the competition.