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opinion

For the next generation of grads looking to enter the work force, it can feel as if there are endless reasons not to approach a potential contact.

The once-simple art of meeting new people has never been more difficult for this tech-enabled generation. Yet in a world where acquiring top talent is a key concern for businesses and soft skills are being lost, networking is more important than ever.

It’s all about exploring

If you think you need to know everything about the person you’re meeting to request a phone call or coffee chat, or that you must have your career path sorted before you reach out to a potential contact, you’re approaching this wrong.

When you meet someone to talk about their industry, you’re not making a presentation or asking for a job. You’re making a human connection. The professional on the other side of the table is there to get to know you, find out what you’re interested in and what you’ve done so far. You’re there to ask questions, be curious, to explore your options and learn about career paths you may not have thought of. If you show up with all the answers, you won’t learn anything.

Career paths are no longer linear and sometimes chatting with someone who can inspire you to go in a different direction can be the most valuable connection of all. Of course it’s important to be prepared, to respect the person’s time and to bring an open attitude to the meeting – but overpreparing or leading with a résumé won’t let the conversation go organically where it needs to go.

It’s not a waste of time

One of the barriers to networking for young job-seekers tends to be the fear that they’re wasting the professional’s time. What they forget is that industry leaders need to practice their skills as much as recent grads or students do. Their ability to connect with people and build relationships is a fundamental soft skill that will make or break them when it comes to moving up in an organization and developing their own career path.

In fact, research shows the art of networking is the most effective way for professionals to build all aspects of their emotional intelligence. Industry professionals are also incentivized and measured for their ability to attract great people into their industry, their company and their team, so it’s actually part of their job to create relationships with potential hires.

Plus, the best way to learn is to teach. The professionals who take 30 minutes to meet with students and teach them about their industry are actually learning and becoming better at their jobs themselves. But these industry leaders can get caught up in their own day-to-day routine, so it’s important for the younger generation to initiate the conversations.

It’s okay to have nothing in common

In fact, the more different you are from the other person, the more likely you’ll learn something new, create better ideas and gain a new perspective.

We now know that diversity and inclusion are key strengths of profitable companies. So why is it that when people see someone different than them, they’re more likely to wonder, “what’s in it for me?” Employers today can’t afford to simply hire their lookalikes, or to allow nepotism to move employees up the corporate ladder. People need to go beyond their immediate network to recruit the right candidates and create a work force that brings together different perspectives and backgrounds. It’s okay if you don’t have the “right” connections when you’re starting out, because you can meet those people along the way.

If you dig deep enough, you’ll find there’s always some kind of common ground between two people, so try to connect on a human level, discuss a shared interest and be curious about your differences. The results may surprise you.

At the end of the day, everybody knows they’re supposed to network. The problem is that nobody really knows what that means. They don’t know where to begin, and they get paralyzed in a sea of what-ifs. My advice is to just go have a conversation. Maybe you’ll help someone; maybe they’ll help you. Maybe all you did was practice meeting new people. Perhaps you made a great new connection. In all those scenarios, you’ll develop and you’ll learn. Either way, you win.

Dave Wilkin is the CEO of Ten Thousand Coffees, a global enterprise talent development technology company.

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