Successful networking should be an enjoyable, beneficial experience for both parties involved. Unfortunately, too many networking overtures fall flat due to lack of preparation by individuals initiating the discussion.
I found excellent networking advice from The Acton Foundation. Based at the University of Texas, Austin, the Acton Foundation provides teachers and aspiring entrepreneurs with a wide variety of courses and learning tools.
Even though written for entrepreneurs, the following 12 suggestions are quite relevant for anyone engaged in networking:
1. Do your personal soul searching and industry homework first.
Take a personal inventory. Take aptitude tests. Ask those who know you well what you do better than most. Do whatever it takes to narrow your search to a few industries. Read about these industries and the leading companies and people.
Personal interviews with teachers, entrepreneurs and executives should not be used to narrow your search or learn about jobs or industries. A stranger or casual acquaintance doesn’t know you well enough to map out your career. This is a very inefficient use of a busy person’s time.
2. Be specific about what you need. Make sure the other person understands how a little effort on their part can make a big difference in your life.
Be clear about what you want. People are more likely to help you if they understand what you need, why it matters and how they can help with a minimum of time and effort. If you can’t explain this in a few sentences, you don’t need a meeting.
3. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Whenever you contact anyone, stop and put yourself in their shoes. Why would they want to talk with you? How can you make it easy on them? How can you demonstrate that talking with you would be entertaining or educational? At the very least, be humble and appreciative.
4. Make it easy.
Never ask for a lunch if a short meeting will do. Never ask for a meeting if a phone call will suffice. Never ask for a phone call if an e-mail will get the job done.
5. Don’t pester.
If the other person isn’t interested, back off. Ask if there’s someone else they suggest you could talk with or something they suggest you read. Perseverance is a great character trait if you are pursuing a worthy goal, but an empty meeting is not a worthy goal.
6. Start at the bottom.
Once you have narrowed the list of industries, make your first contacts with people who are helping serve real customers. Look for people who have recently joined the company. These are the people who can tell you the most about what your experience will be like with a company or within an industry. You can learn about an industry’s history by reading biographies of industry pioneers.
7. Show up prepared.
If you do need a phone call or meeting, be prepared. Make sure you have read all the important books about the industry and the biographies about its pioneers in advance. Thoroughly research the company and the individual with whom you are meeting.
8. Send a list of questions in advance.
A short list of questions helps set the agenda and shows that you’ve done your homework. Sending your questions in advance makes the most of a short meeting.
9. Ask questions.
Your goal in a face-to-face meeting is to establish a relationship. Use your time in a personal interview to learn about the other person. How did they get to where they are today? What mistakes have they made? What do they cherish or regret? Once you understand the other person, and they believe you are sincere and dedicated to their industry, and perhaps following in their same path, they are more likely to see you as a younger version of themselves, and are more likely to want to help.
10. Give something unexpected in return.
What can you give in return? Does the entrepreneur have a favorite charity where you can volunteer? Is there some other way you can give them an unexpected gift?
Will you at least pledge to help someone like yourself in the future? Being willing to give of yourself without being asked is a sign of maturity and character.
11. Be nice to the gatekeepers too.
Remember, executive assistants run most companies. They can be your most valuable source of information about a company or an entrepreneur. See them as a resource, not a barrier.
12. Follow up.
Always, always, always write a handwritten thank you note. Let the entrepreneur know how their advice or recommendation helped. Show them your gratitude by offering something unexpected.