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Advice / Job Search / Networking

6 Ways to Upgrade Your Networking Skills

I don’t have to tell you how important networking is when you’re looking for a job. And you probably know that it’s just as critical to do it after you’ve already found a position—it’s a way for you to meet new people who can open doors for you in the future as well as learn to about what’s going on your field.

But here’s something you might not be aware of. In fact, I didn’t even quite realize it myself for years. Once you’re already established in your career, you need to go about your professional hobnobbing in a much different way. Unless, of course, you want to end up wasting both your time and your best stilettos.

I call this new approach advanced networking. Here’s how to do it brilliantly.

1. Get Beyond Chit-Chat and Chardonnay

When you aren’t seriously looking for a job or don’t have any other type of major agenda, you probably take a fairly casual approach to networking. You’ll head to the conference’s opening cocktail party and see how the night unfolds. Maybe you’ll meet a few interesting people, but if the night’s a bust, you’ll compensate with a glass of bad wine and some fried shrimp.

But even though you may not have a firm goal when you attend conferences and luncheons these days, you need to be far more tactical. Years ago, I started going to events with a very definite end game in mind: that I would return with at least one valuable insight or strategy. When you set out to make that happen, trust me, it will. Which brings me to point number 2.

2. Listen (and Ask) More than You Talk

When you’re 22, you go to events ready to give your pitch to whoever will listen. Hey, you need a job. But if you’re already established, networking isn’t about a job search. Instead, you want to be inspired and gather news you can use, either now or in the future.

When you’re chatting with someone new, don’t feel the need to immediately counter everything he or she says with your own anecdote. Ask questions, delve deeper. Learn from the person. The formula I’ve seen work again and again is this: Contact + Curiosity = Opportunity. If you’re just talking too much, you’ll never hear anything of value.

3. When You Do Talk, Work at Forming a Connection, Not Just Promoting How Fab You Are

Robert Cialdini, author of the book Influence and Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing and Arizona State University, says that one of the principles of influence is that we like people who are like us. So, when you meet someone you want to form a lasting tie to, discover what the two of you have in common and build a connection from that starting point. If the person feels a bond with you, he or she will be more likely to stay in touch.

And after your initial meeting, do your part to keep the connection going. A simple note—think “I know you love Provence as much as I do. Here’s a link to a terrific piece on it”—goes a long way.

4. Know That Great Networking Doesn’t Have to Be in Person

In recent years, I’ve done some of my best “connecting” over the phone. It’s a far less random way to meet key people than at an event. Just last week, I had a great conversation with a woman who supplied me with ton of info I needed for a project I was working on. A mutual acquaintance helped set up the call.

Don’t be afraid to ask your contacts to introduce you via email to people who can help you (use LinkedIn’s advance search feature to your advantage) and then inquire if the person would be open to a short phone conversation.

And yes, phone. A lot of young woman email me asking if they can take me out for a quick cup of coffee (“I’ll just take 15 minutes of your time) to strategize with me about their careers, but that’s unrealistic to expect of many people. If you include planning and travel time, a cup of coffee eats up over an hour of the workday. But phone calls easily can be kept to a brief 15 minutes.

5. Expect Tit for Tat

Gosh, that sounds rude, so let me rephrase it. When you’re just starting out, successful people will often do professional favors for you simply as a way to pay it forward. But once you’re in the game and interacting with peers, there’s an underlining assumption that a favor will be returned down the road. There’s nothing wrong with that. You just have to be aware of it.

Case in point: the woman I just mentioned networking with on the phone. At the end of the call, she asked me for a favor. Nothing major, like seeing if I could get her tickets to Kinky Boots. But she wanted me to put in a good word for her with my book publisher. I was happy to oblige.

Oh, and regardless of whether a favor is asked in return, always, always send a thank you!

6. Bring the Networking to You

About 10 years ago, I started hosting dinners at my home for about a dozen exceptional women at a time. They are glorious nights, with lots of takeaways. But the truth is, I would never have had the chance to attend such an event unless I did it myself.

You don’t have to do elaborate dinners, though. Invite a group to your apartment for wine and cheese or organize a get-together at a bar or restaurant. You can have a stated agenda or keep it more casual. I also like playing the game, “Solve my work issue,” giving everyone a turn to share their challenges and get input from the rest of the group.

Advanced networking doesn’t look much like the days of heading to a conference and collecting as many business cards as possible (and that’s a good thing). But it’s even more important to your career.

Has networking ever paid off brilliantly for you? Share your stories in the comments section!

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