How many of you have felt like this before?
“I don’t enjoy networking because I don’t like to speak to strangers with an ulterior motive of getting something from them.”
“I hate networking. I always feel so pressured to sound ‘intelligent’ so that I can leave a good impression.”
“In my mind, the whole time I was there, I was thinking what’s the point of me being there? What difference does it make anyway?”
“Let’s leave after this session, I don’t want to network and socialise over drinks.”
I can identify with all four statements. While people argue that it’s much easier for me to network with people because of my extroverted personality, I’m deep inside, a really lazy person. Therefore, choosing to make the effort to network is a choice that I have to actively convince my inner lazy self to make. Initially, I also found it quite insincere to approach someone with a specific purpose (i.e. get a job/project).
However, as a management consultant working on a different project every 3 months, I will suffer if I don’t network around the firm to find out about upcoming or interesting projects. If there are projects that I really want to get on, there’s a whole process of approaching and meeting with the team lead and members to understand more about the project, then selling my strengths to try to get a role. Unless I want to be allocated to a project that I know nothing of and could potentially be something that nobody wants, I meet as many people on exciting projects as possible.
Networking does not happen in a specific way. It can be over drinks, over coffee during work, over meals. I would interpret it as expanding you network. There’s a fine line between socialising and networking, but I would think that if this conversation you’re having affects your professional life, it would be deemed as networking.
Over the last year of working, I’ve picked up some basic tips and tricks to do effective networking (i.e. you achieve what you set out to do via networking). To some, it may be a “no-brainer”, but I guess a quick refresher never hurts.
And you’ll never know what opportunities may arise when you network, so you need to be always prepared.
1. Check LinkedIn
If you’re meeting a person that you really want to impress, you should look at their LinkedIn profile. This may sound slightly stalker-ish or even creepy, but it is always good to have an understanding of who you’re talking to and their profile. Of course, you should be careful not to be blatant that you’re checking their LinkedIn. Instead, weave it slowly into the context or you could ask questions that may direct him/her to start speaking about what you’re interested in.
This helps for interview preparation as well. For my final interview with my firm, I managed to obtain the name of my interviewer from the receptionist and I immediately checked him on LinkedIn. Of course, my heart sank when I found out he had a strong background in Financial Services (see my previous post on my experience interviewing for a Japanese bank, Nomura). However, I was much more prepared when he asked me questions about what I thought how Scottish independence will affect the UK economy and what I thought of the financial crisis.
Fine, I just quickly went to the Financial Times website and scanned through the key news. I was as prepared as I could possibly be in 10 minutes, but that still helps!
2. Learn to be comfortable talking about yourself, your experience and strengths
You’ll never know when the networking session may turn into an impromptu interview. The person you’re speaking with may want to know more about you after talking a lot about themselves.
“So how about you? What’s your background?” “Tell me about yourself.” are some of common questions that are often asked. I’m not sure whether it’s because of my culture or how I was brought up, but at the start I found it awkward to talk about my strengths. I can always say my experience in the most objective manner, but talking about my good points felt like self praise.
Now, I’ve come to realise that it’s necessary to know how to sell yourself, and it’s important not to sell yourself short, especially if it’s regarding something you really want. You don’t have to twist the story line and make yourself sound like a hero, but you can always state what feedback you’ve received and results you’ve achieved previously in a factual manner.
Everyone has unique experiences so you should think ahead of time about the experiences that will differentiate you and make you more memorable. It also helps if you have prior knowledge about the person (cue point 1), because you can cater a little bit of your experience to their background or interest.
3. Prepare questions
To avoid wasting people’s time, it is wise to prepare questions around topics you want to understand. Say that you’re interested in the role that the person you’re networking has, start by doing basic research about the job. Then broaden and start thinking more widely about questions that you want to ask. As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, you need to try your best to adhere to the guidelines around asking questions. Think about things that you won’t usually be able to Google and that someone working in the industry may be able to answer because they have firsthand experience.
You can definitely ask for advice related to softer side of work. Since I’ve started working, I’ve managed to make some work mentors whom I am able to speak openly and frankly with. Before meeting them, I would have a mental list of observations I made during work (i.e. about how I felt about different ways of working, how I felt my career was going etc). Then during our monthly coffee catch ups, I would share them and ask for their thoughts. Thus, there are hardly any awkward silences or times when there was nothing more to say.
Don’t forget, the other party who you’re speaking to has a schedule as well, so if there’s nothing to say, it’s better to take a rain check.
4. Take note of the little things
I always bring my notebook, just in case I need to note any points or insightful comments. In addition, when you are referred to someone else, a notebook will come in handy to record the names.
Be punctual and check your appearance, regardless of whether it’s one-to-one meetings or large scale recruitment events. You’ll never know who has a pet peeve about being late.
Or imagine how awkward it will be if you realised you were speaking with leftover spinach from that quiche you had during lunch in between your teeth the whole time.
5. Listen and be open to new ideas and thoughts
Many people know that the key to effective networking is to leave a good impression, but what does it really mean to leave a good impression? Well, basically, you should properly engage with the person you’re networking with by listening actively and asking intelligent questions based on what you’ve heard. By being able to ask good questions that demonstrate that you can think widely and quickly, this will set you apart from the rest.
It’s crucial to have the flexibility to deviate from your list of prepared questions. You should focus on what they are saying and ask follow up questions from there, as sticking to a mental list of prepared questions may make the other party think that you’re just asking for the sake of asking and not actually engaging.
To be honest, I’m still trying to master this step, but I know that I really don’t do this well in groups (i.e. large-scale recruitment events with a lot of other people trying to ask the same person questions). I am often left behind trying to understand what they meant and before I can even clarify, the group has already moved on. I guess that’s why I prefer having one-to-one conversations with people. It’s easier to absorb what has been said and go on your own pace.
6. Follow up post networking
This is essentially one of the most important steps but also one that people always forget/neglect.
You attend a recruitment event, network well with the employees over drinks and manage to leave a really good impression on this really senior guy, Joe Bloggs. You submit your CV and your cover letter, stating that you have met Joe Bloggs over the networking session, who promised you that he would vouch for you.
And then you get rejected.
Why did Joe Bloggs not vouch for you like he said he would?
It could be that other aspects of your application fell short and even Joe Bloggs vouching for you didn’t help. But most likely, the reason is that Joe Bloggs didn’t even remember your name.
Lesson to learn? You need to remember to ask for their name cards or contact details (usually, their email) during the session. Drop them a simple email to thank them for the session and ask any left over questions that you didn’t manage to cover.
A friend of mine working in a top investment bank mentioned that they do get asked by HR after networking sessions for names of outstanding candidates. While this may not guarantee you the job, giving your name to HR via the person you spoke to will allow you to speed past the CV round, which is where most candidates are eliminated.
Overtime, I’ve come to terms with networking and learnt to appreciate how my perspective has been broadened because of the different people I’ve spoken with. I’ve been able to gain a lot of insight into the minds of successful women working in a male-dominated business, entrepreneurs I’ve also managed to understand the driving motivation behind both senior and junior people, which has been really inspiring. Behind the serious facade of some, networking has also opened up another relaxed and humorous side of them.
All of that I would never have known if I just stayed home and watched dramas all day.
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