By Susan Rose
Go to any industry event or show and it won’t be hard to stumble across the gregarious individuals who appear to be natural-born networkers with the ability to command the room like a champ. Our industry is a highly collaborative one, so there’s no getting around having a solid and reliable list of partners who can pick up a local or out-of-town VIP client and treat them like their own. Consolidation combined with abundant worldwide business travel has made networking a critical function of staying alive in the 2010s and into the next decade. Even if you have a carefully cultivated crop of partners, owners are retiring and businesses are being sold or merged—or it might just be time to retire an affiliate (see more for tips on page 108). That silo needs constant replenishment.
Networking is how you grow, and it’s a skill that you have to hone at every level of your career. The following is a guide on how to be a badass networker at every phase of your professional life.
Networking is how you grow, and it’s a skill that you have to hone at any level of your career.
There are many industry veterans who make networking look effortless, but for the rest of us, it requires building those muscles through practice ... lots of practice. More importantly, knowing how to network in various situations with a variety of group sizes and levels of executives demands core fungible skills that can get you through any event. We all had to start somewhere, so jump right in.
1. Smile. When you’re new to networking, smiling is often one of the most overlooked ways to break the ice. A smile puts others at ease, and it makes you approachable.
2. Rehearse an Opener. Skilled networkers know how to engage others and grab their attention. You should also have a few ideas on how to attract a person’s interest with a catchy line or two—within reason. This isn’t about cheesy bar one-liners or dating clichés. Who are you and why are you at that event?
3. Practice in a Non-Threatening Setting. This will vary from person to person, but for most it will be a non-industry meeting or a group like Toastmasters. Also try the apps Meetup or Weaveuntil you are comfortable chatting with others both in and outside the industry.
4. Use a Mentor. We all know someone who is particularly good at meeting new people in any situation, so ask them to be a wingman during an industry event so you have a warm introduction or observe how they network in an unfamiliar group. Build on that as you make more and more connections.
5. Bring a Friend. Divide and conquer a new group by bringing a trusted colleague from another company. It’s gauche to drone on and on about yourself—not to mention off-putting for those you are trying to impress—so why not let a friend vouch for you and offer to introduce them to you. This works best if you bring a friend who works in a different industry and can speak highly of you and your company while you individually work the room.
6. Show That You Are Listening. Networking is a dance, a conversation between two business professionals, and being too aggressive can be a buzzkill. Show a genuine curiosity when meeting people by asking questions during the discussion, and it doesn’t always have to be about business. People usually love to talk about themselves, so ask away. You’ll know quickly if they hold up their end of the bargain by reciprocating with their own questions.
7. For the Love of Gosling, Follow Up! What was the point if you don’t make a good-faith effort to reconnect after the event? Some fresh connections may turn into duds, so weed them out and move on.
Networking can prove challenging for those who are considered introverted. The common misconception is that introversion is synonymous with shyness—an introvert can be shy but being shy does not make one an introvert. Whereas their extroverted counterparts are energized by social interaction and prefer to be with people over being alone, introverts often enjoy smaller groups and generally thrive working on their own. Introverts can be gregarious, socially adept, and outgoing; however, they are easily exhausted by too much stimuli and definitely won’t be the last man standing at the end of the night. Introverts can be excellent listeners, while extroverts will be driven positively by the attention they are receiving.
Like newbies, introverts need to work on developing that networking muscle so that they can adapt to any situation, and in given time it will happen. How extroverts and introverts go about this may differ, but relationship-building is something we all do. In addition to the “newbie” tips, consider:
1. Do Prior Recon. Introverts work best when it’s one-on-one or in more intimate settings, so try using the event’s app or list of attendees to figure out who you want to meet before you leave. Reach out to them to set an appointment, if possible, and definitely follow up. If they can’t make time for a private conversation during the event, don’t give up, especially if they are highly in demand. Break times are often great for those meetings, but be respectful of the person’s time.
2. Start Small. Don’t set yourself up to fail with lofty expectations; try setting the goal of leaving an event with one new friend (or three or five). Focus on quality over quantity.
3. Relax. Easier said than done, right? If there’s one constant it’s that everyone is insecure about something; some people are just better at hiding it. The world will not come to an end if you say something silly as an ice-breaker as long as neither party is offended. Use common sense and practice your elevator pitch so that it sounds natural rather than rehearsed. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with, “So, what brings you to this event?”
4. Bring a Friend, Part 2. Instead of divide and conquer, build up your confidence by attending an event with a poised friend who has the networking chops. Make sure that this is a bridge and not a permanent crutch.
5 Don’t Make Jokes at Your Expense. What?! Self-deprecating humor is an easy tactic to fall back on but making fun of yourself consistently—even if it’s about something obvious—will leave a lasting impression in a person’s mind more so than how you can connect professionally. Don’t undermine your confidence, or give them a reason to doubt your ability, lest the joke becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
6 Build in Periods to Recharge. Only you know how much you can handle, so work in breaks where you can take a quick walk, refresh in the restroom, or regroup in a quiet room. Feel no shame in doing so. Then get back out there with your game face on and ready to network.
7 Give Back. You’re not alone, and there will be a new and terrified introvert at any given event, so be the one to break the ice with them. Give them a hand up as they navigate the waters. They will appreciate you doing so, and you’ll build a new connection.
What can I possibly tell you hardcore networkers that you don’t already know?
1. Don’t Talk All About You. Sometimes expert networkers get a little impatient and just want to skip to the business part—but don’t. You’ll be missing the important first step of making that personal connection, and turning off that contact in the process. Also, people will remember you if you helped them in some way that wasn’t tit for tat, business speaking. Even if you’re just sharing an idea or resource that doesn’t benefit your business, they will remember.
2. Share Instead of Sell. You’ve probably told your story so many times that you have built-in pauses for laugh lines. Your story is always your story, but mix it up a bit so that you’re not pitching your company first. Don’t forget to pitch them some questions about themselves so that you are creating conversation and not just spewing a sales pitch. Don’t panhandle and ask for a favor before building a rapport.
3. Mind Your Social Media Presence. Hard fact: Not everyone thinks your brand of politics, social causes, or humor is awesome. Know that people—not just customers—are looking up what you post on social media and making judgments about you or your business, even if the post has nothing to do with your company. Exercise good judgment when posting, or better yet, use the privacy settings for topics that you only want to share with people who know you well like family.
4. Size Matters ... But Not As Much As You Think. At one time, it was impressive to work with the biggest/best/oldest company in Timbuctoo, but many more sales are made today between companies of all sizes that can handle the job, do it well for a fair price, and have like-minded philosophies. You may have earned the title as the biggest/best/oldest service, but don’t expect that that alone will be impressive. You still have to do an amazing job and be a competent partner.
5. Be a Mentor. Volunteer to take someone under your wing until they are capable of networking on their own. Always be willing to share a warm connection with someone in need. Give without expectation of receiving.
6. Branch Out to Other Groups. There are tons of associations and organizations that aren’t industry-related but are filled with professionals who want transportation services. Think niche: Try business organizations that focus on the needs of the LGBTQ community, women in business, or state business associations. Be respectful and research their specific issues before joining the event. Genuinely ask business-related questions. Leave the politics and opinions at the door.
7. Invite People Into the Clique. You’d never be part of a clique, right? In small industries like this, we fall into patterns and go into our comfort zones, which often means interacting with the same old guard. There’s nothing wrong with that, but be mindful that event-goers are there to make new connections or build upon existing ones. Instead of having lunch with your typical friends, branch out and sit with people you don’t know well, or at all. Offer your assistance or recommendation if they are looking for affiliates in a certain market outside your own.