June 18, 2014 10:00 pm

How to network as a career strategy

Morea Josias

Morea Josias: "The strongest networkers are those who show an interest in others and who are the first to offer them something"

Networking is vital to a successful career – being in contact with the right people can help you find your next job or help you solve work problems. If you avoid networking, you run the risk of becoming invisible. But there are a few points to know about how to network effectively.

If you had one tip about networking what would it be?

It is not all about you. Helen Nicholson, director of The Networking Company, which teaches people how to network in business, says that people often make the mistake that networking is about finding and getting to know as many people as possible who can help them.

But in fact, the strongest networkers are those who show an interest in others and who are the first to offer them something, rather than ask for something. So forget about what people can do for you and find ways in which you can help them because the idea is about creating mutually beneficial relationships.

Another tip is that charming people know how to listen. Listening is the first step to remembering a conversation and one of the biggest mistakes when networking is talking too much about yourself.

How soon can I expect a return on my investment in networking?

Networking is a long-term career strategy – not a quick fix. It takes six years to build a good network, according to Ms Nicholson.

Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council – an organisation for successful entrepreneurs – says that your network should be as diverse as possible, incorporating people from various backgrounds with various specialisations. This is because you want a large pool of talent and skills to harness from, so you do not focus on a handful of individuals with requests for assistance.

Graduates should take advantage of the superb networks their alma mater offers them too. Take the initiative and actively cultivate the acquaintance of those you admire. If the opportunity arises, your contacts from the network are generally more than willing to recommend you for a suitable vacancy.

We also had a number of MBA students who were able to build good relationships with the businesses they were working with on consultancy projects during their course. This led to students securing employment from those companies upon graduation.

How do I present myself in networking?

The most important stage of networking is the first impression. To make a smooth first impression it is a good idea to prepare an elevator speech that is short, informative and designed to entice the listener to want to know more.

Ms Nicholson has a great formula for working out a good elevator speech. It consists of completing three sentences: “I’m this …”, “I do this . . .” and “so that . . .” For example, “I’m head of career services, I manage the career services office at the University of Cape Town GSB so that we can deliver opportunities to our students and graduates to enable them to find a job.”

How do I break into a conversation without being rude?

Instead of standing around at an event where you do not know anybody, actively look for a small group of people who are discussing a topic you are interested in. Gently break into the group by making eye contact with the speaker. That person will keep that eye contact and the other people in the group will assume that you and the speaker know each other and you are in, says Ms Nicholson

What should you talk about at networking events?

Small talk leads to big talk. You can improve your ability of making small talk by reading widely. Read outside of your demographic and immediate areas of interest so you can talk a little bit about anything, regardless of how much in common you have with the person you are talking to. It is very important to be yourself as people can sense when you are being authentic or not.

Is it a good idea to swap business cards?

Business cards are great conversation starters. In China, when someone receives a business card they treat it with honour, look at it, make a comment on the card and place it in a pocket nearest their heart. This custom is great because not only are you acknowledging the person’s gesture, but you can start a conversation based on the card’s information.

What should I do after the initial meeting?

Some people make the mistake of not following up after networking. If the first impression is so important for getting more opportunities to meet a person, then engineering a second meeting cannot hurt. The next get-together helps develop a relationship and a network. Following up also takes the form of thanking someone for anything they have done for you.

Morea Josias is head of career services at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa.

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