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Unwritten rules of networking
Like any other form of social interaction, a bit of basic etiquette and self-awareness go a long way when it comes to getting on at work through networking.
If you’re only ever thinking “what’s in it for me?”, you’re likely to come across as insincere and maybe even a bit of a nuisance. Don’t be surprised if your attempts to connect with people are politely declined – or ignored altogether. But approach it in a generous and open spirit and good things may often naturally follow.
Ground rules for effective networking
- Introduce yourself properly. Social networks have made it easy to blast off a gazillion impersonal contact requests in minutes. This may give you the happy illusion you are ‘networking’, but the chances are you’re actually spamming anyone who doesn’t already know you. Not a great start. When contacting someone for the first time in a professional capacity, be sure to tell them clearly and politely who you are and why you are getting in touch – just as you’d do over the phone or in a conference lobby. A bit of basic courtesy shows them you have a genuine reason to get in touch and, ideally, that you know a bit about them already.
- Try to offer something in return. There’s a fundamental give-and-take in networking. This takes care of itself if you are engaged in a two-way exchange of ideas. But if you are asking a contact for something – whether that’s information, an introduction to someone else, or ten minutes of their time to chat – show them you are mindful of the fact they are doing you a favour and try to offer them something in future (even if it’s something as simple as a second opinion). Your willingness to help in itself will show you value what they are doing for you and help oil the networking wheels. And if others come to you politely asking for advice, be ready to help them too.
- Manage your expectations. Don't expect too much from your first encounter with a new contact, and avoid coming straight out with unrealistic demands (e.g. “Go on, give us a job… pleeease!”) – this could put them in an awkward position and is unlikely to get a positive reaction. Think in terms of gathering information, rather than asking for something directly. Decide what you want to know – something that doesn’t require too much time and effort on their part, and isn’t too vague. Asking sensible, targeted questions shows them you value both their time and personal space.
- Approach contacts in a way you’re comfortable with. Because if you aren’t at ease, they probably won’t be either. Some people are happy to dive in and phone new contacts up straight off the bat. Others prefer to start at the shallow end, making their initial move via online networks, email or even snail mail. Ultimately though, if it’s a key relationship that you want to develop further, it should eventually lead to meeting them in person, or at least a phone conversation (for reasons explained in online versus face-to-face networking).
- Be persistent without being pushy. Some people will be happy to chat, others will be more evasive. If you’re still encountering resistance after a few attempts to engage them in conversation, cut your losses and move on to the next contact. Networking doesn't always produce immediate results, so be patient and dig in for the long haul. It's a cumulative process: the more you engage with others, the more you learn and the more like-minded people you get to meet.
- So spread your net wide. Don’t limit your network to current colleagues: past employers, colleagues of colleagues, friends, family and just about anyone you meet can form your network. If you’re a graduate, school leaver or new jobseeker, your teachers, lecturers or professors can prove invaluable – they know your strengths as well as anyone and will often have expert contacts in your chosen field of work. And keep on growing your network: ask anyone you’ve met if they can think of anyone else it would be useful for you to talk to (could they even introduce you?). Any networking that results in another lead has been a success.
- Cultivate your contacts. If someone has helped you, follow up with a thank you message. Thereafter, contact them at regular intervals (say, every month or couple of months) to keep the connection alive. If you’re thinking this could feel a bit forced, and don’t feel like you have much to say, online networks can help. They allow you to stay on the radar of people in your network, directly or indirectly, by posting links to items of mutual work-related interest, or commenting on others’ posts. (But be selective, sparing and relevant in what you broadcast – constant updates quickly get intrusive.)
You can find this article and other information on networking here.
Looking for work? Check out our advice around Networking for Jobs.