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Networking: The Glue in Your Professional Development Toolkit

Polly Roach

Professional development isn’t only about growing your knowledge and skills; it’s also about creating connections - with people, organizations and communities - that can help you pursue your purpose more expansively and effectively. That’s why networking savvy is an essential tool to have in your professional toolkit and why I want to share a few tips that I’ve found to make networking easier in a variety of situations.

First, get ready to connect effectively. Preparation will make you feel more comfortable about going into a new situation, especially one where you’ll encounter a lot of new people (the introvert’s nightmare, which I share). Develop and practice a couple of variations on an elevator speech – a one to two sentence, 10 – 15 second description of what you do that’s appropriate for the situation you’re walking into. As well-worn as that advice is, following it can save you from stumbling through an awkward introduction – and having a few versions handy means you’ll be ready for anything from your National Night Out black party to a professional conference. Also, make sure you’re ready with a few good questions to start and keep conversations going; again, thinking about this ahead of time can soothe social or situational anxieties by giving you a reliable fallback. Heather Yamada-Hosley’s November 7, 2016 post on lifehacker.com, Seven Tips to Strike Up Conversation with Anyone, is full of good ideas for getting the conversational ball rolling, while Josh Ocampo’s January 28, 2019 post on the same blog, How to Get Better at Small Talk, demonstrates the use of improv comedy’s “Yes, and…” rule to find common ground with almost anyone.

Next, set yourself up for success. We often see networking in a negative light – from fears that others seek out new people solely as a “what’s in it for me” endeavor or will view you as doing the same, to discomfort with artificial connections that seem to be made for the sake of adding to a stack of business cards and only last as long as a happy hour. To make the most and get the most out of networking, change this mindset. In the article “Improve Your Networking Skills”, author Tiffany Dufu advises us to recognize the value networks provide, and the importance of cultivating them, by seeing them as “meaningful villages of people open to helping one another”, and to approach networking with the goal of growing your village. This idea helped me reframe my approach to networking in another way as well. I used to approach networking as a way to expand my tribe, looking for connections with like-minded others who shared my professional interests or pursuits. Thinking of networking as a village reminds me that healthy villages are diverse; they are made up of different types of people, doing different things, but working together to create vibrant places to live and grow. This idea nudges me to be open to meeting all kinds of people, and building many types of connections, instead of being laser-focused on finding others like me, and reminds me to see people as more than their positions.

Finally, go on and get out there – challenge yourself to meet someone new, talk to people you see all the time but don’t really know, or reach out to someone interesting on LinkedIn (or the social media platform of your choice). Strong networks that give you links to new contacts and exposure to new ideas aren’t developed in a vacuum or by sticking to your inner circle; they require a bit of risk-taking. If this seems especially daunting, give yourself permission to try out networking opportunities with a specific rationale and set time limit in mind. In the blog post "Can I go home now?” Networking tips for Introverts, Robbie Samuels, author of Croissants vs. Bagels: Strategic, Effective, and Inclusive Networking at Conferences, recommends a three-part strategy for networking activities that includes purposeful assessment, advance preparation, and goal-oriented connections. Having a well-thought out plan, with a beginning, middle and end for those times when you’ll be plunging into new situations, allows you to focus your energy and be at your best as you share what you have to offer with others.

So now that you’re armed with a few tips to get you ready, set and going on networking, I hope you’ll take every opportunity to build your village, from the next MAVA Connections gathering/District Council meeting (where networking is the reason for participating, so you don’t have to worry about others’ intentions) or a large national conference that might be happening right in your own backyard. One last tip: when you make a connection that you want to keep building on, follow up! Make an effort to deepen those bonds – and make them really stick – by grabbing coffee to exchange information about new developments, emailing an item you think might be of interest, or commenting on a LinkedIn milestone. Continually cultivating connections helps your network flourish – and your village grow even stronger.