I have never liked the word networking when used in a business context. I am confronted by the image of someone with a pocket full of business cards, lurking through the halls of a convention center, eager to pounce on an unsuspecting conference attendee and make an acquaintance with a bone-crushing handshake, a deafening laugh, and an onslaught of questions, all in the hope of figuring out if there might be a business “connection.”
Collecting lots of business cards—or, in today’s world of LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, accumulating “connections,” “followers,” or “friends”—does not automatically result in a cadre of individuals who will be a resource and offer support for professional endeavors. Rather, the foundation for a cadre or career network comes from solid professional relationships that are built on trust and are mutually beneficial. The old adage still holds true that quality, not quantity, matters. Having a thousand contacts can be meaningless when information, access, or assistance is required. As you move forward in your career, you want to place emphasis on building relationships, not gathering names. When you call upon these people, the likely result will be committed actions that can achieve a desired outcome.
To build a cadre for resource and support, turn to the attributes that are essential to friendships, the four Cs—care, contribution, courteousness, and commitment.
People typically help those with whom they have an affinity, reference, or context. Therefore, you want to show a genuine interest in other people and what they do. Get to know how they became involved in a given activity or profession. Ask about their challenges and what keeps them up in the middle of the night. Inquire about their goals and aspirations. When they answer your questions, be sure to listen.
Career networking requires planning and strategy: you need to know what you want from others and to what end. Having a preliminary focus on your desired outcomes and intentions can serve as a guide to direct relationship building. Are there individuals with certain skills, talents, and experiences you would like to have in your cadre?
Mutually beneficial relationship building is a two-way street. Not only is it important to know what you want from the relationship, but it is key to assess what you have to offer. What skills, talents, experiences, or other resources can you provide? How can you support others in nonfinancial ways, such as sharing existing relationships that could be beneficial? What contributions can you make in time or money? What are you committed to helping others with? By answering these questions, you will know your value and what you bring to the table.
Listening to others as well as talking to them is a cornerstone of building relationships. In your interactions, remember to follow basic manners and the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” This is particularly important when returning telephone calls or answering e-mails. Replying within 24 hours or on the next business day or, at a maximum, within 72 hours demonstrates interest and commitment.
Recognize, however, that not everyone follows such practices. If you are trying to reach someone who fails to get back to you in what you determine is a reasonable time frame, don’t overreact. There is a fine line between being persistent and being a pest. Others may have obligations and responsibilities that prohibit a response in your expected time frame. Treat them in the manner you would desire if you were in a similar situation. If your reason for contacting someone is truly urgent, say so in your initial communication.
People have different levels of sensitivity. Some may treat what you consider an innocuous statement as a slight and even carry a grudge. Make a conscious effort to be mindful of what you say, and if you think you may have said something hurtful, resolve it as soon as possible. A quick mea culpa can make the difference in continuing to nurture and develop mutually beneficial and trusting relationships.
If someone has helped you, acknowledge the contribution. In this age of hurried communication, the old-fashioned, handwritten thank-you card can be greatly appreciated. Also, try to help others who have given you an assist. You can extend an invitation to an event that may be beneficial to their endeavors and follow up on their requests by forwarding information that may be useful to their pursuits. These gestures can make a difference in building a cadre.
Developing a cadre is an ongoing process that evolves as professional objectives change. By investing in yourself, you can meet others and keep expanding your circle. You can attend workshops or classes that enhance your skills; volunteer with professional or industry organizations, nonprofits, or religious or community groups; or join alumni chapters or boards of organizations. These activities provide opportunities to meet others who may share your interests, passions, or desire to build a cadre. As in forming and nurturing friendships, developing a career network does not occur overnight. Each interaction requires intentionality and commitment, as well as time and effort. DW
Ritta McLaughlin is a municipal finance specialist in Washington, DC and New York.