As a college student, I am often asked 3 questions:
What do you want to do with your life? (Yikes.)
How do you intend to get there?
Who do you know who will help you achieve that goal?
The first question is huge and sometimes overwhelming. The second question is also big and confusing, and requires a lot of Providential input. But the third question— this is the one I have the most control over, and the question which has the potential to control the other two.
The pressure of building a solid professional network is already present in the minds of career-seeking students. But it can be difficult to get out of your comfort zone to speak with someone new. You're not alone if you find networking scary, pointless, or confusing. Here are a few reasons to network, and some tips for doing it well.
Before you enter a professional event or social situation, ask yourself what you want to walk away knowing. For myself, I always want to walk away knowing a person. I desire to know where she is in life, how her past led her there, what brings her joy, and where her hopes lie. In short, I desire to establish a relationship by knowing and being known by another. At the end of a good conversation, I will exchange contact information with the individual in order to maintain the relationship, and BAM! I have inadvertently added a real person to my network..
If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. We typically make friends by falling into conversation about some mutual point of interest, and if we want to keep in touch we will exchange phone numbers. Networking does not just mimic relationship-building; it actually is relationship-building.
If you have friends, you can network.
I would advise introverts (and, well, everyone) not to enter a professional event with the intention of building your network. With such an intention, the people in the room may become “potential connections” rather than people. Conversation goes differently if you are eager to display your resume and inquire about job opportunities. Often, people can tell when they are being used as a means to some end. They do not appreciate it, and ultimately neither will you.
Talking to People
This might be the scariest part. To ease your nerves a bit, feign confidence up front. Stride toward an individual or a small group, depending on what you are most comfortable with, introduce yourself, and express interest in the person or persons. Try to pose meaningful, open-ended questions. “Where are you from” and “How long have you been with this company” are fine, but they tend to bring conversation to a halt.
Instead, try to get a feel for what the person enjoys talking about. Maybe he is proud of his latest project at work or the progress his toddler is making with the alphabet. This should go without saying, but when the person speaks, listen to him. Do not let your mind wander away from the conversation, and certainly do not interrupt.
When it is your turn to speak, talk about what you enjoy. Tell stories and be vulnerable. The more you reveal about yourself, the more this relationship-turned-professional-connection has the potential to benefit you. If you have no idea what you want to do with your future and the question comes up, lay out your options and interests. Perhaps your new friend can help, or perhaps he has a connection who can help you take the next step.
One of the biggest temptations for introverts is to do the majority of their networking online. Online networking—for instance, through email or LinkedIn—is a great tool for publicizing your name and repertoire for future employers. But it should not be your primary tool.
Before going digital, I maintained a physical portfolio of the professional relationships I had formed, including individuals’ names, occupations, contact information, how we met, and something memorable about them or our encounter.
With this information, I could call or email someone with the following:
“Hi,Jared! We met last year at the Pro-Life luncheon in Tallahassee. You might remember that you helped me clean up after I dropped a glass of water on the floor! How have you been?"
"Last time we spoke, you mentioned that your daughter was deciding on which college to attend. Where did she end up?"
'Right now, I’m looking for a summer internship and would love the opportunity to work with your pro-life organization if there are any openings. If not, do you know anyone in the field who I could get in touch with?”
It's far easier to find commonalities with someone you've me and spoken with than with someone who you've only emailed. Try giving people a call first, and following up with an email later.
After joining LinkedIn, I began to form my digital network out of my preexisting relationships, which made remembering personal information much easier! LinkedIn also provides a huge advantage in your networking--the ability to see friends of friends. These people, called 2nd level connections, are individuals you are not connected to yet, but whom you could be connected to easily through your mutual friend.
As a result, LinkedIn allows you to find many more people than you could have found otherwise, including people that are in exactly the field you wish to enter.
A mistake introverts might make with online networking is connecting with as many people as possible…including strangers. One time, an older man with an unusual name and strange profile picture asked to connect with me on LinkedIn. No note of introduction, and the only thing we had in common was a mutual friend. I reached out to that friend and asked her how she knew the man. “I don’t,” she replied. “He wanted to connect with me, so I let him.”
These sorts of individuals will most likely not make or break your employment opportunity. I advise you to only connect digitally with people you are familiar with in reality. We would not approach a stranger on the side of the road and request them to join our professional network, and the same prudence should be applied to the internet.
The Secret Weapon
Often, I imagine that networking means reaching out into the big world, blindly searching for people who might be able to help me find a future career. With this image, networking seems daunting. Here is my preferred image of networking: looking to my right and left at those who are already near to me.
Yes, it may not seem like “networking,” but establishing a professional relationship with the people you already know and love is—in my experience—the most useful form of networking.
In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was considering a career in law. Before undergoing preparation for law school, I wanted to discern this path by participating in a legal internship. I began applying for all sorts of law internships, but because I was a first year undergraduate with no experience in the field, nobody wanted to hire me.
During a casual phone conversation with my younger sister, I explained that I was frustrated because I could not find an internship. To my surprise, she replied that her AP Calculus teacher told the class earlier that day that her husband—an Assistant United States attorney—was going through internship applications. I asked my sister to put in a good word for me, assuming nothing would come of the encounter.
The next evening, the teacher’s husband called my cell phone and said, “If you want an internship with the United States Attorney’s Office, send me your resume, cover letter, and transcript first thing tomorrow morning.” I got the internship and spent my summer writing legal documents, organizing discovery, transcribing prison calls and interviews, meeting with federal agents, and attending court proceedings.
The experience was exciting and enriching. Through the internship, I formed relationships with individuals who then became part of my professional network, and they connected me with other professionals in varying fields. In addition, the internship taught me enough about myself to dissuade me from pursuing a career in law. But I never would have had the experience if I hadn’t turned to the people who were already around me.
So what's the secret to networking? Don’t discredit the power of your closest relationships, and be open to finding relationships at every turn.