Why networking matters, and tips for reaching out (essay)
Recently I had the privilege of sitting on a panel with executive women leaders, one of whom, Vickie Schray, senior vice president at Bridgepoint Education, spoke about networking. Vickie offered inspirational wisdom about the value of one’s professional network, and the incredible hard work, intention and dedication it takes to tend to one’s network. That got me thinking about how invaluable my network has become, particularly as I’ve crossed higher education sectors.
As my career took me from traditional to for-profit institutions, I found two things happened:
- My network expanded. In addition to colleagues in the faculty ranks, academic and student affairs, institutional assessment and government relations, I added contacts in analytics, marketing, business leadership, finance, and project management – a real reflection of the cross-functional nature of educational mission and business practices in most for-profit institutions.
- Requests to become part of someone’s network increased. People who may have taken the value of networking for granted in a more traditional environment seemed to make the connection that as higher education professionals moved between traditional and for-profit institutions or environments, networking can truly broaden one’s opportunities and marketability.
As I found myself more in demand as a member of someone’s network, and as I expanded my own network across disciplines and sectors, I recognized that networking isn’t just about collecting names, titles and contact information, it’s about relationships, and as with any relationship that matters to us in our life, we have to be thoughtful and purposeful about developing and nurturing it.
Many sites offer tips and tricks for networking, but there is one piece of advice that has never let me down: Be disciplined and have integrity about developing your network.
Whether you are new to networking or a seasoned networker, you can benefit from taking time to grow your network. Here are a few suggestions from my own networking tool kit:
- Make time for networking. Just as you schedule time for your softball league or academic research activities, put networking time on your calendar -- either inviting someone to connect or responding to someone else’s networking request. We make time for things we value, and committing to networking on your calendar keeps it a priority.
- Identify two to three people a month with whom you want to connect (either for the first time or “again”). Maybe it’s a community member, or the chair of a committee or a CEO. Sometimes fear keeps us from being honest about who we want to connect with … don’t censor yourself! As I moved from traditional to for-profit institutions I was exposed to work environments and roles that were new territory for me at the time. Sometimes I had to get past my preconceived ideas about my own value in relation to someone else in order to learn valuable insights and information in the new world of for-profit higher education. Being intentional about a list of who I wanted to meet or reconnect with helped me commit to reaching out.
- Write down why you want to know more about them. What is it each person on your list that intrigues or inspires you? Are they doing a job you have an interest in? Why does it interest you? Have you seen them advance and want to know more about their trajectory? Perhaps you’re considering a move from the corporate world to the not-for-profit sector and aren’t sure it will be the right fit for you. Ask questions of your not-for-profit contact that will help you understand the benefits and challenges of that sector.
- Invite them to connect. Send an invitation through a networking site and ask for an e-mail or phone conversation, or invite them to let you treat them to coffee or lunch. Everyone needs to eat, and you’re going to have prepared conversation points (keep reading), so don’t be shy about sticking your neck out to ask for time on someone’s calendar.
- Tell the person why you want to connect with them. Maybe it’s because your friend knows someone and thought they would be a good contact, or maybe the reason is more profound. Several times after presenting at a conference about my research and personal experiences of managing work and home life as a working mother, colleagues will feel compelled to reach out to me for advice and understanding of their own work/life situation. No matter the reason, help your connection understand why you selected them.
- Prepare questions in advance of your conversation or meeting. Most people are happy to talk about what they do, why they do it, how they got there, lessons learned, or tips of the trade. But when they make time for you they are doing you a favor. Make sure they know you value their time, and put thought and effort into preparing for your connection.
- Hand your new contact your business card. Ask them to send you a quick e-mail if they think of anything that might be helpful for you to know.
- Consider sending a thank-you note after your meeting. End your meeting on the right note: put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and express your appreciation for your contact’s contribution to your network. Share something your new connection said that made an impact on you, and let them know you are grateful for their time, wisdom or both. Such social graces go a long, long way, even in today’s digital age.
- Keep notes about your connection. Whether someone hands you their business card at a conference, or after a networking lunch, write down how you met, and something about your conversation. When you see each other again you can remind the person of how you know each other or follow up on something specific you may have discussed. Or six months down the road you may want to reach out to your connection to say hello, or ask additional questions. Like a thank-you note, it’s another way to show someone you value the connection you have.
From forging relationships that are useful for your current position to developing contacts that can help you make your next career or life move, networking is about relationships. As Vickie’s contributions at our panel reminded me, when it comes to networking you get what you give. Try my networking challenge. Comment below and let others know what worked, or didn’t. We have so much to gain from each other!
Trenda Boyum-Breen is chief academic officer at Rasmussen College.