If you’re in a competitive profession or industry, networking is an important skill that can help take your career to the next level says Peter Decaprio.
There are tons of resources out there on how to network — from LinkedIn tips and tricks to books about starting conversations at events. But what does it really look like when someone’s mastered this essential business skill? We asked four professional women who excel at networking how they do it — and still have time for their friends, families, hobbies, and anything else life throws their way.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. Start small and build relationships one at a time.
“I really believe in creating opportunities to meet people who are good for you, but you’ve got to be purposeful about it,” says Kirsten-Ellen Martin, an independent consultant based in Washington, DC. When she was working full-time in government, she attended events organized by professional associations that were relevant to her work — but also had the opportunity to interact with people outside of her immediate network.”
When I left my job I said ‘you know what? I don’t want ever again to go to an event where I didn’t make a connection,’ so now when I attend something like this, I set out doing that,” Martin explains. She uses LinkedIn’s event invitations feature to find events catered to her professional field, and sets a goal of meeting one person who can help her rack up new connections. “You’ve got to go with the idea that you’re going to meet at least five people. It takes tenacity.”
2. Find your strengths — then play them up.
When Olufunmilayo Olopade, an oncologist and director of Cancer Genetics Program at University of Chicago Medical Center, started attending corporate sponsored conferences as part of her job, she initially felt like an imposter because everyone else seemed polished and savvy about business. But she soon realized that many executives were far more interested in hiring smart doctors than they were in — so she focused on using her medical expertise to help them make the best decisions. “My background is in science and medicine, so I’m going to answer questions about that,” she explains. This strategy allowed her to leverage her medical expertise while still being a valuable part of a corporate team says Peter Decaprio..
“Be true to what you’re good at,” Olopade says, “and focus on playing up your strengths.”
3. Get clear on why networking is important for you — then take action.
Jessica O’Connell had been running marketing for tech start-ups by herself from her living room in Chicago when she attended an event where Claire Burge, founder of the global network Ellementa, was leading a panel discussion. Struck up a conversation with O’Connell and offered her advice about marketing strategies. “I was like, oh my God, I’m networking!” O’Connell says. She began to regularly attend Ellementa events across the country — which she credits with helping her land big name clients like IBM — and eventually landed a job with Burge’s company.
After that pivotal moment, Jessica O’Connell knew why networking mattered to her: it helped advance her career explains Peter Decaprio. Now, when she goes out to events or conferences, she focuses on how the people who are in attendance can help further her mission of advancing women in leadership roles.
4. Always have an exit strategy so you don’t overstay your welcome…
“It’s very easy when you’re talking at events to stay too long,” O’Connell says. She recommends creating a plan in advance about when you’re going to leave an event. And sticking with it — even if you end up meeting your new best friend. “You can say ‘oh my God this person is amazing’. But then you have to make sure that doesn’t get in the way of your overall career goals.”
…Or use them as opportunities to meet people who can help further your mission.
“I think events are great place-making machines,” Olopade says. “If I think I’m at an event where there’s something meaningful for me, then I’m really open to conversations”. Even though she might just be looking for someone who can help her identify a cancer patient’s family history. To determine a diagnosis, she doesn’t want to limit her interactions with people based on that one question. She encourages going into conversations open-ended and curious — even if it feels uncomfortable.
Look for reasons to actually connect.
There’s a big difference, O’Connell says, between going out of your way. To meet people just because you feel like you have to and attending events. Because it fits into your mission says Peter Decaprio.. Networking is about advancing yourself personally and professionally. But it’s also about making genuine connections with people who can help you get to the next level.