There's an old saying: it's who you know, not what you know. The idea is that education, skills and knowledge can only get you so far. But if you know the right people and have the right connections, these valuable resources can put you in the path of greater opportunities. A well-placed connection might hear of an open job opportunity before that knowledge is widely available. Relationships with professionals outside of your industry might expose you to opportunities and ideas you would have never otherwise considered.
That's why networking is so important. If you can get yourself onto peoples' short lists, you're not likely to be without work. Instead, your career will continue to grow (see Top Networking Tips for Advisors).
The rules haven't changed much over the years but technology has. Here's how you network like a pro these days.
1. Don't Take Your Friends to the Event
You've already made an impression on your business colleagues. It doesn't make much sense to take them to a networking event and stand together the whole time. Instead, head to the event alone and force yourself to mingle.
2. Wear Something That Stands Out
Nobody would advise looking goofy head to toe, but an interesting pair of shoes, a scarf, or tastefully eye-catching shirt is definitely a conversation starter. Just remember, there's a fine line between tasteful and inappropriate.
3. Don't Just Look for the Older People
If they look older, the must be wiser and wealthier, right? Maybe, but judging people by age is a bad idea. There are plenty of up-and-coming 20- and 30-somethings whom you want to know.
4. Strive to Give Rather Than Get
Giving is better than receiving. If you try to build a relationship on what somebody can give you, you're doomed from the start. Instead, show your value to them.
5. Create a Memory
Influencers meet a lot of people, and they forget about most of them. Because memories are mostly visual, creating a unique memory may keep you from becoming one of the forgotten. Ask a unique, thought-provoking question, for example.
6. Go Online
Everybody knows about LinkedIn (see How To Use LinkedIn To Get A Job), but how about sites such as HARO (Help A Reporter Out), a place where reporters go to find experts for their stories. Or how about job-search sites. Maybe you're not looking for a job but know somebody who would fit that person's needs? Remember, you're forming relationships by first giving to them.
7. The Gatekeeper Is Equally Important
Busy people have gatekeepers to screen their calls and emails and organize their schedule. You aren't likely to get any time with a busy person if you don't first befriend their gatekeeper.
8. Cut the Filler
Busy people don't have time to read a long email. If you're emailing an executive, stick with three to five sentences. Include a link or two if there are supporting facts you want that person to read.
9. Quality, Not Quantity
Think of networking as making a professional friend. A whole lot of superficial friendships isn't better than having one or two quality relationships that add value to each other. Don't try to stuff your contact list. If you go to an event and find one or two contacts, you've done well.
Some people strike the perfect balance between talking and listening, fun versus obnoxious, interesting versus boastful. Then there is almost everybody else. Practice networking every day by striking up conversations with people around the office, at a restaurant or at your child's soccer game. Conversation is definitely an art, and art takes practice.
The Bottom Line
Computers didn't kill networking. It's still vital that you meet people in and out of your industry as you build your career and your business. You aren't going to succeed alone. It will take a network of people to help you get there.