Networking Strategies for Dummies

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The popular, now defunct, comedy show “The Kids In The Hall” once aired a sketch called “Businessmen Networking.” In the sketch, a reception area of an office is filled with middle-aged, mostly white-haired men. There are a few younger men among them who are played by members of the comedy troupe.

A character named Nick walks and begins interacting with a character named Gerald, his supervisor. It becomes clear Nick is new to the business field. So, Gerald enlightens him on the activity occurring around them. “Look out here, Gerald. There’s a sea of businessmen. The ripples and eddies you catch with your eye — those are the important guys. The name of the game is ‘networking,’ businessmen meeting businessmen for the purpose of meeting them again at a later date.”

Satirical though it might be, this provides a pretty perfect definition of what networking is and what it accomplishes. Many aspiring professionals have surveyed the landscape of their perspective field and realized there’s truth to the adage, “It’s not what you know — it’s who you know.”

So, the most basic strategy you can apply to networking is to expand as broadly as possible the pool of people whom you know.

This doesn’t mean your career is dictated by random circumstances in your life. (Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen befriended Bill Gates in high school. Most IT professionals are not so lucky.)

As “The Kids In The Hall” sketch progresses, it makes it clear how easy it can be to come to “know” someone. A character named Tony enters. He is cool and confident, obviously an experienced networker. Nick and Gerald interact with him briefly, and after meeting Nick, Tony tells him he hopes to see his name on a mailing list someday. Tony then abruptly ends the conversation by saying, “OK. Listen, I’m gonna stand a few feet away.” Nick and Gerald then excitedly ponder the significance of the meeting, and Gerald say, “He knows you. Can that hurt?”

It can’t. Another lesson to take away from the meeting is how directly Tony acted to dismiss himself from the conversation. In any good networking opportunity, say a room full of IT pros who specialize in your chosen field, it pays to not be shy in telling people you need to move on and continue speaking with other people.

It’s a matter of working the room — the best people in the business are able to do it effortlessly, but those who lack gifted ease in social interactions still should be able to gracefully dismiss themselves from career-oriented conversations once they’ve run their course.

To network, of course, you’ve got to get into a space where professionals in your field are congregating. It pays to be open to trade shows, conferences, open houses, grand openings, etc. Not so many that it distracts from your work, but enough to ensure you’re making connections in your field.

And in approaching such a networking opportunity, be unabashedly ambitious about it. Meet the right people for your networking objectives and directly ask them about it if you feel there’s something they can do for you or you can do for them. After all, you’re there to build your career.

But this is not to say industry-centric talk has to dominate networking. As “The Kids In The Hall” sketch progresses further, Gerald introduces Nick to yet another businessman. Nick hesitantly tries to establish a common ground, asking him “Do you like professional sports?”

This gets an excited response from the potential contact, who exclaims, “Ha! By God, I do! I cheer for all the local teams!”

The two begin to shake hands vigorously and don’t stop. Obviously, identifying a common interest is not always this easy, but feeling out a contact about his or her interests can allow you to easily establish a rapport that makes networking much easier and more rewarding.

As “The Kids In The Hall” sketch concludes, all the businessmen in the room have surrounded Nick. He’s now “the hot guy” (mainly owing to his having made mention of professional sports).

With any luck, your networking efforts will be as successful as his.

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