After a busy month of networking mixers, Social Media Week panel discussions and hosting my 5th CareerCamp unconference I was reminded of an important lesson. We all talk about networking as an important part of building our career, but I think we can sometimes lose sight of what networking truly is and how we can best connect with those around us. There are some very important concepts to remember when you are out there actively networking if you want to gain the biggest benefit from your activities.
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Business cards are merely a bookmark
I am sure you have all seen a certain type of person at any networking event you may have attended. They dash from group to group, eager to give out, and take away, as many business cards as possible. They often don’t engage in the conversation much and seem to wait, mentally tapping their foot, until any opening in the conversation where they can proffer a business card, ask for yours and then dash to the next group. I call it “hit and run” networking and it is one of the most ineffective (if not annoying) activities taking place at such events.
Networking is not about business cards — it is about connection, conversation and common ground. To have a true effect in your career, you need to get to know people, not just their business cards. Business cards are merely a bookmark to remind you who you met and how to contact them — they aren’t an end goal in themselves. If you engage in this card-gathering activity all you will have at the end of the night is a stack of cards. When (and if) you contact these people later, they probably will have no recollection of you at all, or worse, they will only recognize you as the obnoxious person who played “hit and run” instead of engaging in the conversation.
Don’t worry about meeting everyone
Some of this behavior arises from the concern that you must meet EVERYONE at a particular party or mixer. Not true! Instead of trying to meet everyone, focus on meeting the right people — the best people — the people most likely to have common ground with you. How do you find these key people? You talk! You meet, you greet, you communicate, you stay in the conversation and allow others to contribute. If the person isn’t interesting to you — or you to them — graciously move on to the next group of people. If, on the other hand, someone strikes a chord with you, keep talking. Explore the conversation further. Then — and only then — after a great conversation, ask for their business card and offer yours. It is no use collecting the business cards of people you did not really come to know. Why waste your or, more importantly, their time. Move on and find someone else.
Yes, of course, you won’t have time to talk to everyone at an event, but that is ok. It isn’t a race or a business card gathering contest — it is a conversation. If you don’t talk to people, it is highly unlikely that you will gain any advantage from contacting that person after the event. In those cases, your email is nothing short of a cold call to someone you have never actually “met.”
Even better, introduce people!
Instead of going on a business card hunt, consider engaging in a very productive networking method. Whenever you meet someone who has something in common with someone else you know — even if you just met them earlier in the evening — introduce them to one another. Become a facilitator of conversations and connections. This is a great way of building your own network. Then, not only are you introducing yourself to people, you are adding value to the event by making sure they meet other people who might be important to them. Any time you can add value, you benefit greatly. People will quickly see that you aren’t only interested in your own networking benefits. You are concerned with everyone gaining value from the event. You are facilitating the single most important part of any networking event. You are driving and creating opportunities for conversation.
Remember, business cards alone are not a valid measure of your networking success. Your goal should be to meet people, engage them in conversation and find those that share your interests and/or those who might be able to help you in your business goals. People and relationships are the true goal of any networking event.