Guest blog by Brian Hendrick who works as a Delivery Lead for HM Revenue and Customs:
Professional social networks go a long way toward excelling in one’s career and finding development/learning opportunities. For some people, socialising is enjoyable/exciting and networking may feel natural. For others, socialising may be more difficult/tiresome and networking may feel like a necessary evil. Whether you fall into one of these camps or somewhere in between, there is always room for improvement. This blog aims to state simple ways that we can improve our networking skills, regardless of how we feel about networking.
Participating in formal networking
There are many formal networking opportunities available; one could become a member of a society/organisation/charity, find volunteering opportunities, attend an event like a public lecture or workshop, and/or seek out a mentor.
There are plenty of societies, organisations, and charities around the world that are always looking for new members. Finding one which resonates with you or that promotes a cause which you are passionate about is a great opportunity to become a member and meet like-minded individuals. Sharing a common bond and being members of the same community makes it easier to connect with people to grow your network. Similarly, volunteering for a cause that you care about is also a great way to connect with people and grow your network. It puts you in a collaborative environment with like-minded members of the community who share the similar passion towards whatever cause you are contributing to.
Many of these societies/organisations/charities hold events like public lectures and workshops. These are great opportunities if you are considering becoming a member of an organisation but would like to experience what it may entail first. The majority of these events will have a reception before or after and this is a great opportunity to connect with people. If you are someone who finds it difficult to initiate conversations, just make it a goal to speak to at least one other person and try to get their contact details. Once you initiate the first conversation at a formal networking event, subsequent conversations will be much easier to initiate. Also, try to find a colleague to go with if you are nervous to go alone. The more events you attend, the easier it will become to go alone and initiate conversations with others.
Seeking out a mentor is beneficial to improving your networking skills. The hardest part about finding a mentor is having the courage to ask, but the worst thing that can happen is that they will say no. When seeking a mentor, look for someone who inspires you and would want to learn from. They don’t necessarily have to be working in a field that you strive to be in, but if they are it definitely helps you learn more about prospective career opportunities. Remember there are no rules to finding a mentor, you can have more than one and see them as infrequently or frequently as you both see fit. Don’t be afraid to ask, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain from asking someone you look up to to be your mentor.
Taking advantage of informal networking
Human beings are social animals, and it is within our nature to connect with others (even if it does not feel natural to some). We begin to establish and build our network without even consciously knowing we are doing it. That is because we can network essentially anywhere, with anyone, at anytime through informal channels.
There are plenty of informal channels we can use to establish connections and build our network. We can meet people at parties or in the pub, museums and galleries, or even in meet people in unexpected places like an an aeroplane or train. The informal setting is more relaxed and some may find it easier to connect with people in informal settings compared to formal settings. As mentioned before, most people participating and developing connections in these informal channels are not even aware they are networking. That being said, informal settings and networking can lead to formal networking. You may ask a senior colleague to catch-up over a coffee (informal) and during your coffee you may ask them to be a mentor (formal). This can go the other way, you may meet someone at a networking event or volunteering opportunity (formal) and then ask them out for a coffee or drink (informal).
Utilising online and digital channels
Online and digital channels are great mediums to seek out formal and informal networking opportunities.
Becoming a member of a society/organisation/charity, finding free workshops and public events, and applying for volunteering opportunities are much easier with the internet. One can do significant research on the benefits of joining an organisation and learn about the application process, and even apply online. There are plenty of online channels to attend public events and workshops, including the LSE website, Eventbrite, Facebook, etc.
Also, social media is a great way to set up a coffee or drink to network and connect with people in an informal setting. LinkedIn is a great medium to reach out to people in a career that you are considering to pursue, or even Instagram and Twitter depending on who you are trying to network with (Creative Professionals, Journalists, etc.) Just like asking for a mentor, it is the same for seeking out a potential connection to build your network online. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by initiating contact with these prospective members of your network.
Connections are not only initiated online, but they can also be maintained online. Whether you meet someone in an informal or formal setting, connecting with them on LinkedIn or other social media is a great way to maintain that connection. That way you will always have the opportunity to catch-up and build that relationship at a later date.
There is no right or wrong way to network, do what works best for you. There is always room to improve our networking skills, and the best way to improve our networking skills is to initiate and maintain connections with people. Whether you prefer to build, maintain and improve your network through formal, informal, or online channels, it will become apparent that all three are interconnected so your networking will most definitely involve all three.