Networking – this buzz word is thrown about considerably now, both in terms of job hunting, business development, and as an important skill for new consultants. But if you ask 20 people what networking means, you’re likely to get 20 different answers, each depending on how the person responding makes use of networking.
At its essence networking is simply a way to link yourself to others in order to tap into additional expertise, share knowledge and interests, and identify or create new opportunities. Just a computer network, a social or professional network connects you to others.
Whether you are just hanging out your shingle as a new consultant or have a long history of consulting, developing your professional network can play a critical part of your business strategy. A strong network provides the seeds for new business and for building your own capacity as a professional. Important as it is, though, it’s a process that is difficult for many and avoided completely by some. It helps to remember, as Wendy Gelberg states in her book, The Successful Introvert: How to Enhance Your Job Search and Advance Your Career, although networking may seem self-serving (part of the discomfort of it for many people), “in reality, networking is a mutual process…”
At its broadest, networking takes two dominate forms – person-to-person (face-to-face or business-to-business) networking, and online social networking. Both of these forms deserve their own focus, but a quick look at both is worth doing here.
Face-to-face networking occurs as you meet with people during things like professional association meetings and business-to-business gatherings. It can also be as simple as maintaining contact with people you know personally or professionally – that periodic lunch out, or a quick cup of coffee together before work. Regardless of the specific context, it’s important to remember that this needs to go beyond the “Hi, here’s my business card, call me” kind of thing. For each and every networking conversation you need to have a clear goal in mind – what is it you have to offer, and what is it they can help you with? Start with your purpose in mind. Be always respectful to others, and remember that networking meetings are not sales calls! Getting and giving as a part of the network relationship is key. ( photo credit: Aidan Jones )
Online social networking occurs via the Internet on sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and dozens of other places where people can come together around mutual interests and needs. Just as with person-to-person networking, start with a purpose in mind. Many networking sites have groups organized around particular personal or business interests – seek these out, join them, and participate! Keep in mind potential dangers, however, such as data theft and viruses, or people who claim to be someone they’re not. Use good common sense. Keep in mind, too, that online networking is never a replacement for phone calls and meeting in person, but it’s a great addition to what you do in person.
Whether you’re networking online or face-to-face, networking is an interesting and easy way to connect with others, gain exposure, build your expertise, and create new opportunities. Be generous in sharing your experience, ideas and talents, and remember the mutuality that networking depends upon. Have fun with it!