How Do I Network?

by Rhoad, Todd Monday, April 19, 2010
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While this may sound like a strange question, it is one that I get asked often. Since we are all looking for opportunities for greater success, networking might be a skill we might want to learn. In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the reasons for our inability to connect with others and how we might be able to overcome them.

It’s not hard to understand why it’s important to be able to network. A quick look at the job situation in March shows that we are about 30,000 jobs short of what we need to keep up with our growing US population.

Right now, the government is holding these numbers up with temporary census jobs. Once that’s over, competition will get really fierce (like it isn’t already). At this rate, you can expect it to take 5 to 8 years to catch up. That should give us plenty of time to learn some networking skills.

Once these opportunities start showing up, we’ll need to connect with people on the inside of companies to get a job, since that’s how most jobs are filled. Yep, it’s a little thing called referrals. It’s a trump card that can win you the game. Of course, they are not so easy to get. You have to network with others, get to know them and convince them to help you. Here are a few reasons why this might be tough for you.

Academia doesn’t teach it. The college years were fun and teach us a lot of skills that we can use to improve our career. As an engineer, I learned more than I wanted to know about physics, chemistry, material science and electronics. The one thing we never discussed in those 6 years (bachelors and masters) was how to work a room full of people. If I had been looking for a good engineering job that didn’t require me to interact with people, I was setup for success.

Unfortunately, I got a job in a company that was full of people. To make matters worse, they didn’t speak the engineering language. Once I began interacting with my fellow employees from quality, HR, management, contracts, production and so on, I realized that if I had any intentions of being successful, I had to learn to read people and speak in ways they could understand. Otherwise, I ran the risk of creating my own communication barriers, which could easily blind me of opportunities.

We don’t make attempts to practice it. Networking is not just a skill, it’s an art. Sure, there are some basic aspects of communicating with people that will make you better, but it takes practice to make yourself great. How many events do you attend each year? Most of us don’t push the development of our skills by registering for social or business conferences. These are perfect venues for establishing connections in other companies, industries and geographical locations.

Maybe we avoid these things because we feel out of place. It moves us away from our comfort zone. But this is often exactly what companies are looking for. They want someone who can walk into a strange situation, with little information, and take charge of it. Anyone can follow, but few can lead. As I learned as an engineer, your daily job doesn’t provide a whole of chances to improve your networking skills. I don’t mean that you don’t develop friendships with your coworkers. That’s not the situation where you can excel. Your opportunities come from successfully building working relationships with the people you don’t know, such as suppliers, clients, potential customers, vendors and contractors.

We don’t understand the value. I’ll have to admit it, but it took me quite a few years to assess the real value in networking. I’m not talking about the conversations around the water cooler. I’m talking about stepping into a room where I didn’t know a single soul in the room. However, when I left, I had business cards from numerous people, whom I followed up with and are still in contact with today.

It wasn’t so easy at first. I would enter the auditorium but kept to myself. I didn’t interact much, except for this one time when I was at an event I actually knew someone else who was in the audience. He was an old colleague and a big networker. I figured he would have fun with me since he knew I was out of my element. However, he showed me around and introduced me to several people. It put me at ease. From then on, I realized that people were in the room. You know, people just like me and you. They think the same things, feel the same things and even seek the same things.

Each new contact leads me down a new road, for which most of them lead to another new contact. This is expanding your network. It’s a simple concept. You walk up to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself.

You ask a few questions about them to learn who they are, what interests them and what things you share in common. If you find a lot of commonalities with your new contacts make sure to follow-up with them later to share your schedule and list of activities (in case they are interested in one of them). If you need help, you ask them for it and you encourage them to do the same. The relationship is mutually beneficial.

Sounds simple right? Well, it is. It doesn’t take much more than what I just defined in the previous chapter. Most often the obstacles to networking that get in the way and keep you from connecting with others are inside your head. You are your biggest obstacle. How do you overcome it? Keep putting yourself outside of your comfort zone. Eventually, it isn’t uncomfortable. At this point, it’s a whole new world. Your eyes will be opened and you’ll wonder why we fear what we don’t know.

New roads will lead you to new adventures. This is what we talk about when we say we are looking for new opportunities. Notice though that the opportunities don’t just come directly to you. You actually have to meet people to find these new paths. Then, you must walk the path and be able to recognize the opportunity. Lastly, you must act on it. It’s not hard work. Spending four or more years solving a lot.