In today's challenging job market, it's not just who you know, but how you get to know them.
"Networking is something people think is important, they know they need to do, but they don't know how to do it. Some people say networking is a waste of time. We say yes – if done incorrectly," said Bart Egnal, chief executive officer of leadership development and communications firm the Humphrey Group Inc.
The trick to getting it right, the experts say, is networking with purpose.
"Networking is not about schmoozing and talking about the weather, or talking about how cold it is in the room or bad traffic – it's about growing relationships in number and depth," said Randall Craig, president of social media strategy firm 108 Ideaspace Inc., author of Online PR and Social Media and a regular speaker about networking.
Unfortunately, that's the opposite of what most of us do. "If someone goes into a networking event, typically we make a beeline for people we know best and are comfortable with, to catch up, and frankly ignore everyone else," Mr. Craig said.
Mr. Egnal said he's seen people make this mistake time and time again. "People go and get a glass of wine, and look for only people they know. They might as well have those people over for glass of wine at home."
Instead, experts recommend quickly touching base with people you know, and then approaching new contacts. Being purposeful starts even before you enter the room, by choosing the right room to enter. It's a strategy Mr. Craig calls "fishing where the fish are." If you're looking to connect with large corporations, don't go to events for small businesses. If you're working for an asset management firm, go to high-end benefits. If you're looking to climb the corporate ladder internally, you might even forgo networking outside the company, in favour of company events.
Once you've identified the right event, it's helpful to set a goal.
"Having that intention before you go helps, because it gives you a sense of accomplishment," said Mark Franklin, president of the Toronto-based CareerCycles career management firm. He goes as far as to write down his intentions before he goes, and encourages clients to do the same. "I always have a number of people – if I've been to the event before – who I want to reconnect with, and two to three surprise meetings."
You can also warm up by doing some research on the people you want to meet. Ask the organizer for a list of attendees, and then research their LinkedIn profiles. Or ask contacts you have in common for an introduction, either beforehand over e-mail or even at the event.
When approaching new contacts, Mr. Franklin advises asking questions and showing genuine interest. Mr. Craig emphasizes the importance of asking open-ended questions. The difference between "Did you like the speaker tonight?" and "What did you think about the speaker tonight?" can be the difference between receiving a yes or no answer and starting a conversation.
After you've broken the ice, steer the conversation toward work topics. "If you decide you want to build an internal relationship with your [chief financial officer] but you only talk about sports with her, you're going to miss an opportunity," Mr. Egnal said. Find out about a common business interest and focus on that instead. As a caveat, he adds the less you know a person, the more generic a topic should be – in other words, don't make it too obvious you've been stalking their LinkedIn profile. But the more senior the contact, the more likely you can skip the small talk and get right into a serious discussion.
Also remember that the purpose of a networking event is to make connections, not ask for favours. If anything, you should be thinking about how you can help your contacts, a technique Mr. Craig calls "give to get" and likens to opening a bank account.
"Too often we, as professionals, forget and rush so quickly to make withdrawals when there's nothing in the networking bank account. Give to get is about finding ways to make deposits with those people who you've just started relationships with."
If you do make a great first connection, be sure to follow through. Mr. Egnal advises following up within two weeks. . Keep an eye out for valuable information you can pass along, or ways you can help. Rather than ask them for contacts, Mr. Franklin suggests you might offer to make an introduction. "It's great to say 'Who in my network could I introduce you to that would be helpful?'"
Because networking is an activity you should pursue throughout your career, experts suggest starting early. "The real goal of networking at the start is to become comfortable with the process," Mr. Craig said.
While Mr. Egnal concedes that some occupations require less networking, cultivating a wide network can help in career development and provide a buffer in case of job loss.
"Can you be professionally successfully without networking? Absolutely. Is it riskier? Certainly. If you lose your job and don't have a network, it's very difficult to suddenly create one out of thin air," he said.