When you are trying to advance in your career, you’ll often hear the saying, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” In the professional world, your network is your biggest asset towards opportunity. Whether getting your foot in the door at your first job, getting that big promotion, or landing a pay raise, your network often plays a significant role in creating or securing those opportunities. If networking is so important, why is it rarely prioritized in school or at your jobs? And how do you effectively
build and grow your network, especially in a time of COVID-19?
Networking is often relegated to just a set of soft skills; no one tells you to do it, but everyone expects you to. There is rarely a “how” provided or a process that goes along with it, and the only thing that matters are your social skills—an introvert’s worst nightmare. Even when networking is taught, it is often framed as a chore, a task, or even a necessary evil to get anywhere in life.
In this scenario, networking usually takes on a negative connotation; you only network to get something out of people. Likewise, people only talk to you because you have something they want. This line of thinking needlessly conflates a person’s value to the opportunities and resources they can provide to others, leading to burnout or, worse, completely demoralizing someone with no experience from ever taking their first step.
Networking happens every day, so long as you talk with another human being in your life. Even if the only people you talk to are your friends or immediate coworkers, you still create and strengthen connections. If you genuinely have no network, here is an excellent place to start; ask your close circle to introduce you to others and go from there. You are
essentially just making friends, but acquaintances work just as well.
However, unlike just making friends, remember to set a goal for yourself while networking. This goal will help you steer your conversations and people you meet in the right direction; it is probably the number one question the people you talk to will ask you. As stated before, don’t conflate people’s worth with the opportunities they provide—any connection is a good connection. Network openly, but continue to pursue your relationships strategically as your network will grow and change over time as you work with different teams and companies in your career.
Networking is a loose definition, but one “mistake” people who are networking often make is focusing too much on just people’s professions and themselves. While people are usually more than willing to provide a connection, take a step back and get to know the whole person first, their interests, passions, and hobbies. Even if it may seem off-topic if you get to know them as people first, they will be much more willing to help. The people you network with may be looking for something as well; you may be able to help provide it.
Overall, networking isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously—keep it professional, be prepared, and follow up, but also joke around, laugh, and have fun: it’ll often lead to more meaningful connections. One of the first pieces of advice you’ll hear is to “find something in common”
with the person you are trying to network with. Even if it is as honest and straightforward as “Wow, this networking event is boring,” sometimes it might be all you need to strike up a conversation and make that connection.
The next level is finding people outside of your circles to network with. If you’ve been working on networking already, you’ve probably overwhelmed everyone in your circles; your friends, family, professors, coworkers, bosses, and classmates. It’s time to meet other people, specifically people who can help you achieve your goals.
A great place to start is people in your industry who went to your alma mater or are from the same state as you. You can even search by school and alumni on LinkedIn; then, you can drill down by geography and company. Starting with something in common can make reaching out feel less intimidating.
It has become more acceptable than ever to reach out to someone online in the post-pandemic era. LinkedIn, in particular, is a great place to
find people who can help you achieve your goals. Before reaching out to anyone, make sure your profile is updated and includes your most recent information. This will legitimize yourself and show that you are willing to work for your network.
If you are looking to advance your career, search for your ideal role or company and reach out to the people who show up in the results. Like your network, please read up on their profile, personalize a message for them, state why you wish to connect, and send that connection request.
Unlike utilizing your circles, and despite the current landscape, you may often face rejection or no response. Ultimately, every person is different and has different ways of communicating. Don’t take it personally if someone rejects or ghosts you; it’s a natural part of building
Lastly, keep in touch with the people you network with; you were genuinely interested in getting to know them and respecting their time. While you don’t have to be best buds, connecting and talking often goes a long way in keeping your relationship alive and well, even if neither of you are actively pursuing a networking goal.
As your network expands, it may be harder to stay with everyone. Prioritize those who have helped you get to where you are now, and remember to thank them for their help and advice. These are the people who will be more invested in your professional career and are more willing to assist you in the future as well.
Networking is critical to your success; knowing the right people at the right time in the right places goes a long way in making your career. Whatever you seek to achieve, you will need people to help you get to where you want to be.
Despite how daunting or intimidating networking can seem, you build authentic relationships and friendships. Networking is profoundly personal; you are in complete control and can start
whenever you wish to—whether that be one year or ten years into your career. Have fun, be you, and go out and expand your network!
Lomit Patel is the Senior Vice President of Growth at Together Labs (formerly IMVU). Before Together labs, Lomit managed growth at early-stage startups, including Roku (IPO), TrustedID (acquired by Equifax), Texture (acquired. by Apple), and EarthLink. Lomit is a public speaker, author, advisor, and recognized as a Mobile Hero by Liftoff. Lomit's book Lean AI, part of Eric Ries' best-selling "The Lean Startup" series, is now available on Amazon.