Most people agree that networking is critical to business and career success.  You can find unadvertised job openings and business partners through your network.  Knowing networking is important is one thing, knowing how to do it is another.   This may be in part due to stereotypes about networking.  A recent conversation I had with a colleague highlights this stereotype.

Zack: “I need help with the networking skills please.  I hate that part.  I am the cat that walks alone.”

Lei: “But you are so easy to talk to.”

Zack: “Yes but you started it… I seldom initiate the contact… Networking involves small talk and I am not a big fan.  I’m certainly not a hermit, but not particularly gregarious either.”

The stereotype that Zack has is: to network well, you have to know how to engage in small talk with strangers.   Since he hates small talk, he believes he can’t really network well.   What do you think?  Do you think this is true?

I don’t think it is.    I don’t really like small talk either, but I think I am pretty good at networking.   You see, we don’t all need to be “slick sales people” who can strike up a conversation with any stranger to network well.  Those who are “gregarious” and have that talent can network that way.  For the rest of us, we can develop our network based on our personality, affiliations, and interests.

Here are 5 tips on how to build and use your network without depending on “small talk.”

Tip 1: Build your network before you need it – What is networking?  It’s a process of building relationships.    Relationships take time to grow.  It’s too late to build up your network when you need to find a job, a business partner, etc.  You should be networking when you don’t need anything.  It takes the pressure off of you and the people you are building relationships with, and gives you the freedom to choose who you want to network with.

For example, I schedule reoccurring lunches/coffee with people I know as well as new people I meet and I click with.   I don’t have an agenda in mind.  It’s simply because I like talking to them and I want to foster the relationship.  This way, when I do need something in the future, some level of relationship and rapport is already there.

Tip 2: Network with people you know – Oftentimes, when we think of networking, we think of meeting strangers.  Frankly, the best network we have can be found with people we already know – friends, colleagues, classmates, neighbors, and family.

For example; when you need to find a job, is it more effective to meet strangers at networking events to see if they can help you, or is it more effective to ask people who already know you to help you connect to companies you want to work for?  The answer should be obvious – people you know will make more of an effort to vouch for your capability and connect you to others.   You don’t need to force small talk with people you already know, you already have a natural way to converse with them.  When you need something, think of these people as your network and be willing to ask for their help (see tip #5).

Tip 3: Connect with people based on your interests – Sometime business networking events can be a chore and quite boring.  They often times require small talk.  If that’s not your cup of tea, join groups based on your interests (e.g., hiking, cooking, book club, blogging, kids).  When you attend these gatherings, you don’t need to force small talk as you already have a common interest to discuss.  Best of all, it’s fun.   You will be amazed at the kind of people you meet and their ability to help with your career.

For example:  I have two kids.  I started a parents/kids play group in my networking playdateneighborhood and started going to play dates other parents host.  Our initial connection was that our kids love to play together.  As time went on, I found out that these parents are also business executives in various industries including Banking, the industry I work in today.  Just last week, one of these parents agreed to introduce me to some senior people in banks headquartered in San Francisco so I can explore future contract opportunities.

Tip 4: Find opportunities to help them – Building relationships requires give and take.  You can’t just take and expect people to help you over and over again.   When you interact with people you know and new people you meet, find opportunities to give and help them if you can.   This is how you build a relationship.  The other important point here is don’t give with an expectation for a return.  Genuinely give.   I believe in Karma.  Even if the person you help cannot help you in the future, consider it as a way to pay it forward.   One day, you will be helped by someone as well who you cannot help in return, and that’s ok.

Tip 5: Remember to use your network and ask for help – When you need help in your career or business, remember to use your network.  I have to say this because time and time again I see people who don’t want to “bother others” or “don’t want to ask anyone for help because it affects their ego.”

Don’t let your ego stop you from using the most valuable asset for your career – your network!   Your best network is the people who know you well – friends, classmates, family, and good neighbors.  They already think well of you and probably would be happy to help.    What’s important next is be specific in what you need help on.

For example, the following is not specific enough. “I am looking for work and would love to work in your company for xyz reasons.  Here is my resume.  Can you let me know of any good opening that may fit my skill sets?”  That is too broad of a request and puts all the work on your contact.  More than likely, they won’t come back with anything for you even if they want to help.  Instead, try this; “I saw this job opening in your company.  I think I am an excellent fit.  Would you be willing to refer me for the job internally?  I would be happy to provide a few bullets you can use to support my qualifications for the job.”  Now you have done all the work and all they have to say is yes.

In summary – it’s okay to network with people you like and based on things you enjoy.  Networking is fun and natural when done this way.  You don’t even realize it’s networking.  When you do have a need in your career, remember to use your network and ask for help.   Best wishes on your career success.

I would love to hear your comments.  Does this help you network without feeling the need to small talk?   Add your comments below and let’s have a discussion.

I am always in your corner.  Best wishes to your networking efforts.

– Lei

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