Oprah Winfrey? Sheryl Sandberg? Richard Branson? The CEO of that hot new startup? Think about it for a minute: If you could connect with anyone, who would it be?
Fantasy isn’t just for football. As Steve Jobs advised: It’s time to stop dreaming big, and start dreaming bigger. Here are five simple steps you can put in motion today to network with people who can change your career—and maybe even your life.
Step 1: Be Generous
While networking can sound like a dirty business, it isn’t once you realize that it’s not a one-way street of asking for favors. Networking is about a spirit of generosity that you adopt before you expect it in others.
No matter where you are in your career, you have something to offer. So, first things first, make yourself available to people who seek your advice—interns, people trying to break into your field, whoever. (Remember: Your contact may be a high school senior now, but where will he be in five years? Time moves quickly, as do people’s careers.)
Next, connect people you know who may benefit from being in touch. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s just plain nice. People remember “nice,” and in turn, people will remember you. These sorts of emails take less than five minutes to write and kick-start your reputation as a generous connector (which also makes people more likely to facilitate an introduction for you).
And if that isn’t enough, research shows you’ll be happier! According to the Journal of Applied Psychology, networking benefits your salary, your career trajectory, and your feeling of satisfaction.
Step 2: Do Some Digging
You’d be astonished to discover the number of people you know who you don’t realize you know. By six degrees of separation, you probably do know Oprah! As it happens, I know Richard Branson (by two degrees).
It’s all about opening your mind to the possibilities. Your hairdresser, your classmate, or your high school sweetheart could be connected to your ultimate career role model. You don’t know who’s in their networks—and by extension who might be in your network—until you ask. It may even be your doctor or, in my case, a friend who’s a plastic surgeon. It was through him that I was introduced to the high-profile (and often-controversial) lawyer Gloria Allred. Within a month of that introduction, I was sitting in her famous conference room (the scene of many televised press conferences), and she was fantastic.
This approach applies to everyone, no matter who you are or how famous they are. This month’s issue of Vogue features the ultimate BFFs Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss. How did they meet? Makeup artists and hairdressers had been trying to introduce them for years, and finally a mutual friend did. Boom! Their friendship blossomed and marketing opportunities appeared (hello, cover of Vogue!).
So, be bold, look around, and ask—really, you probably know (someone who knows) Oprah. Or someone equally as inspiring and career-building.
Step 3: Set a Meeting
So, your friend agrees to make an introduction. Then what?
First and foremost, know what you want. I can tell you what you don’t want: You don’t want a job or a mentor. Well maybe you do, but not on your “first date.”
Instead, make your initial ask to get together. Acknowledge that you appreciate how crowded this person’s schedule is. Be clear, be specific, and be brief. Brief means realistic—show that you understand that making time to talk to you is not a priority. Lunch? Dinner? Forget it! Typically the best-case scenario is a 10-minute meeting somewhere convenient (perhaps his or her office). A phone call may be suggested, but press for an in-person meeting, because you’ll have a much better chance of making an impact.
If you don’t get a response, don’t take it personally. Remember, inboxes can be flooded with emails. I suggest respectfully chasing people down. To be clear, I don’t encourage stalking influencers, but you can stay on important people’s radar by changing up your approach. If you don’t hear from someone when you reach out directly, try following up with an assistant.
If you have an introduction, don’t give up! You’re already in the door.
Step 4: Be Prepared
Now that you have a meeting set up, your big day awaits—don’t squander it. Arm yourself with two things. First: knowledge. You should go into the meeting knowing everything you can about this person, including his career path, his company, even his family if it helps. It’s a matter of respect (because it would seem kind of strange and, yes, rude, to ask Jill Abramson why she’s not at The New York Times anymore).
Moreover, you’ll be better equipped to get what you want out of the meeting—i.e., meaningful guidance—because you’ll be able to establish a more genuine connection. Research helps you deduce commonalities. Maybe you went to the same college or share the same interest in surfing. Mentioning these common interests are a way to forge bonds and demonstrate shared values, which makes people like you.
The second thing I always do is bring a gift. Nothing crazy—it shouldn’t come in a robin’s egg colored box. But it should be something appropriate and meaningful. The recipient will think of you when she looks at it (or gives it away—don’t take that personally). Your research can help here, too: Maybe he has a famous sweet tooth or a demonstrated interest in the environment? You could bring handcrafted chocolate from your favorite café or gourmet organic coffee that supports farmers in developing nations.
This sort of thoughtfulness goes a long way, and it’s an investment that’s guaranteed to pay dividends.
Step 5: Have a Goal
You’ve arrived! Once the conversation is underway, remember, you’re there to listen first, talk second. Don’t forget that!
Your meeting isn’t a stage for you to recite your resume and tell this influencer how outstanding you are. She’ll be more impressed if you actively listen. Show her you’re present and engaged and that you’re following along with what she’s saying. Ask questions—after all, you want her opinion.
Also, consider how you can help the person you’re meeting with. For example, I once met with a federal district court judge in her 70s who had broken through enough glass ceilings for a hundred women. But while her intellectual acumen was nothing short of spectacular, keeping up with modern technology was not her forté (no one can be a master of everything). We were discussing her side project, and I realized what she needed was an intern. Blogging? Photoshop? This was something best handled by a Millennial! Voilá, something quick and easy for me to help her with. And just like that, we had a reason to stay in touch and grow our friendship.
You can take actions right now to strengthen your network and increase your chances of being connected with the inspirational and influential. Take five minutes and introduce two friends. Reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Get your networking on, and stay committed to it. You never know where it can lead you.