Networking can open doors to career growth. But reaching out to people you don’t know can be intimidating for some people.
“So many of us are excited when we have the opportunity to enter into new spaces and meet new people, learn from their experiences, their stories, their insights,” said Daniel Horgan, CEO and founder of CoLabL. “But for some of us, networking can be one of those things [where] our stress levels start to rise, our anxiety goes up.” Horgan made his remarks during the June 12 virtual session “Effective Networking: In-Person and Virtual Strategies to Make Meaningful Connections” at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 (SHRM22) in New Orleans.
Horgan’s Arlington, Va.-based company provides customized training and consultation in areas such as program design and management and employee development. CoLabL has partnered with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the SHRM Foundation in the past to design and facilitate a variety of their mentorship programs.
“We’re not quite sure what to say or how to approach somebody that we don’t know yet. We walk into that room full of strangers and suddenly we just don’t know what to do, where to go or what to say,” Horgan said.
But as scary as it may seem, networking is important, he added. It opens doors and creates connections to the work and to the people who are advancing an organization’s mission.
Networking and Self-Awareness
Building great relationships requires “a solid understanding of who we are, what we like, what we dislike, what values drive us, [and] why we make the decisions and take the actions that we take,” Horgan explained.
There should be purpose to your networking, “not just networking for the sake of making more connections on LinkedIn or meeting as many people as you can meet,” he said. Think about your goals and the types of people you want to meet.
Having a clear sense of your values and what you’re seeking in networking “gives you the opportunity to be more focused, to be more prepared in those experiences—ultimately leading you to be able to accomplish your goals and build more meaning and purpose,” Horgan said. Developing characteristics of self-awareness and reflecting on the influences in your life can help you network successfully. Keep in mind factors such as:
- An understanding of what facets make up your identity—such as race, religion, economic status, sexual orientation and gender—because these elements shape who you are, how you view yourself, and how you interact and engage with others.
- Knowledge of your skills and strengths.
- Who you spend your time with.
“The group of people that you surround yourself with really does, in fact, impact your personal brand,” Horgan said.
- Your experiences, which influence how you participate in groups and converse with others.
- The values that guide your actions and decisions.
“If you have a strong sense of your value system and you put those values into action, you take time to reflect on and make sure that you stay aligned to those values,” he said. “You also strengthen your relationships—often being drawn to people who are aligned to your values and not in direct competition with them. You have sort of this compass guiding you each day,” which boosts your confidence and helps reduce stress when networking.
- Your personal and professional goals.
Tools and Resources
Horgan shared the following tips and free resources that may help as you cultivate your networking abilities:
- 16 Personalities. This is used to examine one’s communication and leadership tendencies.
- Scientific survey of character strengths from the VIA Institute on Character. This assessment helps you understand your best qualities.
- LinkedIn. The profile you create helps others get a sense of who you are. Make sure you display a friendly expression in your photo and stay away from distracting backgrounds.
Use keywords in the headline that explain “what you bring to the table,” Horgan said. Write a short summary—five to nine sentences—about your experience. This should include some top skills and strengths and key passion areas, then end with one to two sentences about future goals.
Be purposeful in how you reach out to people on LinkedIn, Horgan recommended. For example, instead of sending a generic connection request, you might note that the other person has more than five years of experience in an area you’ve worked in for two years and explain that you would like to hear how that person pivoted to a different HR function.
Follow up immediately when you receive a response to your networking request—thank them, create a calendar invitation and perhaps send an article you have read related to the topic you’re interested in discussing. This shows your initiative.
Know when to pursue and when to back off
Use cues around you to adopt a conversational style when you begin your conversation. At SHRM22, for example, you might ask what your new acquaintance thought of the previous main stage speaker or the conference venue. If you are networking virtually, also consider if you have enough lighting and if the other person can see and hear you.
Sometimes, after an exploratory conversation, it’s apparent there is no true connection. That’s OK, Horgan assured attendees.
“Move on to someone else or to another group that’s present at that event or present [at] the virtual experience that you might be a part of,” he advised.
If you know someone in your network who could better benefit from meeting your new acquaintance, offer an introduction. And if someone you meet introduces you to another contact, always circle back to the initial contact to thank them for the introduction.
“When you do that,” Horgan said, “it increases your chances of that person introducing you to more people from their network because you’re showing a genuine appreciation for the time and the effort they took to think about you.”