Fresh out of college, my first job was doing marketing research for McGraw Hill in New York City. I didn't know many people in the city and, to me, networking was all about finding new friends to hang out with. Networking was purely social.
What I discovered over the years is that networking is much more than that. It is an essential part of building a successful career, and if done strategically and intentionally, it can be very powerful.
Here are the seven secrets about networking I wish I learned in my 20s:
1. Effective networking involves focus, attention, and strategy.
Many of us network haphazardly. We join some industry groups. We meet coworkers after work for a drink, but we don't have a plan. We might even think the more people we meet, the better. But meeting the right people is most important. The right people are those that can help you reach your career goal. The right people are those people who are willing to speak up for you. You need to focus on people with whom you can build strong mutually beneficial relationships.
2. There is a direct relationship between networking strategically and increased income.
Upwardly Mobile, Inc., with the support of Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business Management, conducted research in April 2008 about how professionals use networking. They surveyed more than 600 high-earning "elite" professionals about how they use networking to cultivate richer relationships, gain more access and enjoy more success in their careers and personal lives. Their findings confirm that "networking is a key driver behind higher salaries and career advancement."
3. Keeping in touch with former alums and colleagues is money in the bank.
When I wanted to make a career move after having lost out on a promotion, I tapped into my network and let people know I was looking for a new opportunity. Almost immediately, a former colleague gave me information about an opening in her company. She worked in another business unit there and knew the management team. Not only did she give me the lead, but she pre-sold me to the key stakeholders. I interviewed for the position and landed the job. My income almost doubled.
4. Paying it forward pays off.
One important lesson I've learned is that the more you invest in your network, the more valuable your network is. Taking calls, responding to emails, offering to help people creates a strong bond. People trust that you will be there for them and are often willing to respond in kind. It's important to network proactively so you have these relationships when you need help.
One of my clients is a great example of this. Lisa was always willing to offer her help and support to her former colleagues. An executive with a long history in banking, Lisa took a risk and joined a technology startup as COO. After one year, it was apparent that this new opportunity wasn't working out. Lisa was let go. The primary breadwinner in her family, she needed another high-level job as soon as possible.
She immediately let her network know what she was looking for. They gave her leads about openings and she was able to secure a senior executive position within a month and a half. The job had not even been formally posted yet. The time and energy she invested in helping her network contacts paid off.
5. Collecting business cards is better than handing them out.
Do you go to networking events armed with a stack of business cards? We have been instructed that giving out our cards is the best way to make connections. The secret to effective networking, however, is to make sure you collect business cards of those people you meet. This way you can control the follow up. You give away your card, you give away the control. After you go to a networking event, write notes on the back of the cards about the conversation you had with this person and potential ways to follow up.
6. Forget the elevator pitch; find commonality.
I often hear from clients that they don't know what to say when they first meet people at networking events. They stumble over their elevator pitch trying to impress someone with their title or expertise. Here's the thing to remember: It's the commonality that matters. Enter into conversations and ask questions and listen. The things you might have in common help to establish a connection that will blossom over time.
7. Don't just network with people you like and people like you.
Our comfort zone is to hang out with people most like us, but research supports the benefits of diverse networks.
Ronald S. Burt, professor of sociology and strategy at the University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business, has done extensive research on the efficacy of diverse networks.
"Indeed, it might not be who or what you know that creates advantage, but rather more simply, who you become by dint of how you hang out — the disadvantaged hang out with folks just like themselves, while the advantaged engage folks of diverse opinion and practice."
How are you currently networking? It takes focus and intention to network effectively for your career advancement.