Updated: Sep 5
Networking is a buzzword people love to throw around. But what does it really mean?
it doesn't have to feel forced
The idea of networking can be overwhelming. I remember attending a Young Professional’s event in Louisville, Kentucky as a shy and eager graduate student - dressing in professional attire, holding a folder with my resume, and trying to convince myself I was capable of walking up to strangers in an unnatural setting and initiating a natural conversation. This was how I defined networking for far too long. Something that was formal, intimidating, and frankly - something I dreaded.
it can be natural
It took years to develop a deeper, more fluent understanding of networking - and how to do it with more ease, especially as an introvert. Networking can be a simple process, but it does require preparation. For example, when I was in my mid-twenties, I was ready to transition from a small, educational tour company to a role with more potential for growth. At the time, my mom had a friend who worked in Events & Meetings at KPMG. She connected the two of us and we had a discussion.
This is often an ideal first step: someone you know know’s someone in a field you’re interested in, and that person can break the ice to connect you.
It's essential to be prepared for that discussion. I researched KPMG, their Events & Meetings department, and what made their work unique. Everyone advises to develop questions prior, but sometimes determining what questions to ask can be overwhelming. I have found that when you delve into research on the organization, the roles you’re interested in within that organization, the culture there, and whatever information you can find (YouTube often has relevant videos) - the questions come more organically. When I came to that meeting it was clear that I had done my research. She then connected me to the Director of Events & Meetings at the time, and I was able to chat with her. Later on, when I applied for a job there, I wasn’t just a resume and a cover letter. I was a known face of an interested applicant who stood out because I had already met with two representatives within the department - which led to a job offer.
Preparation is key
In Anna Goldfarb’s insightful New York Times article “The Right Way to Ask, ‘Can I Pick Your Brain?’” she states “it can be difficult or even unrealistic for a busy professional to coordinate bespoke consultation appointments for everyone who asks.” Goldfarb advises to be aware of what your intentions are for having the meeting before going into it. Also, be polite and accommodating. Offer various times, dates, and ways to meet (Zoom, a call, or in-person), and do what is best for them. Additionally, arrive on time, be aware of how long the meeting runs, and if you do meet in person for coffee - offer to buy the coffee.
Goldfarb also stresses the importance of doing your research and coming prepared with thoughtful questions. She quotes Dorie Clark, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the author of “Entrepreneurial You,” who suggests “If they have given speeches that are online, they have written books, you should, as a gesture of respect to that person, have familiarized yourself with that content prior to speaking with them.”
Preparing somewhere between 5 to ten questions should be sufficient. Think of them more as guidelines for conversation starters rather than questions to mechanically ask in numerical order. Often, one question leads to another that you didn’t write down. You may end up only using one to three of them, which is completely fine. The main goal is to open up space for conversation and connection - and see where it goes.
At the conclusion of your discussion, make sure to thank him or her for their time. Most of us can probably agree that we often feel busy and pulled in many directions. Anytime someone is able to give you their time, it is a gift. In addition, sending a follow-up thank you email after the meeting is an appropriate symbol of appreciation.
stay in touch
Lastly, try to stay in touch with that person. This doesn’t have to be forced and you don’t have to continue reaching out often. It can be a simple “happy holidays” email around that time of the year, or a link to an article you came across that made you think of them. Think of it as occasionally popping your head in to say, “Hello, I am still here, respect you and the work you’re doing, and am interested in the possibility of our paths crossing one day!”
Each time you do this, it gets easier, and your network gets stronger. No connection is a waste of time. You never know how one relationship may lead to another person or another opportunity.
Goldfarb, A. (2019). The right way to ask 'can I pick your brain?'. New York Times.