A Guide to Networking

MAC Renovation's Robbyn MacDonald chats with fellow attendees during the Douglas 10 to Watch Awards. Photo: Megan Wilson.

“I hate networking.” You’ve likely heard this from business students, executives and fellow professionals alike. You may even have said it yourself from time to time. Although it may seem that some people have a natural passion for networking, for most of us it’s a learned skill — and an important one. 

Networking is all about building and maintaining mutually beneficial business relationships. Seasoned executives agree that it can help foster lasting connections and achieve professional goals. According to a 2017 LinkedIn survey of some 16,000 people from 17 countries, almost 80 per cent of respondents claimed that networking is essential for career advancement. 

Whether you’ve never networked before or just need to improve your skills, here’s what the experts have to say.

Get Connected

Where to start networking depends on where you are on your career path. 

If you’ve just graduated from college or university, start by adding your classmates on a networking site like LinkedIn. Message those you know personally. Ask them what they’ve been up to, and if what they do sparks your interest, follow up with detailed questions about how they landed the gig. This could lead to a few additional contacts. And, of course, be sure to reciprocate in kind.

If you’re just starting a new job, connect with your colleagues. This is what Rick Cotton, an associate professor at UVic who researches developmental networks, did. “I looked at all the profiles of everybody in the faculty and got a sense of who had common interests with me, who I could connect with,” he says. “If you have a common interest, a common hobby, you live in the same neighbourhood, like the same sports team, come from the same university — these are all commonalities that you can extend and leverage.”

At any point in your career, joining professional organizations is a great way to make connections outside of work. When Michael King, an associate professor of finance at UVic, moved here from Ontario, he joined the Rotary Club. “Many of [the members] have been in the club for years and are pillars of the community,” says King, who, having lived and worked in seven countries, has decades of networking experience.

Organized to facilitate casual conversation and foster professional connections, mixers and meetups are great opportunities to start networking with professionals who work in a range of industries. So are social events, charity galas, sports competitions and other activities where professionals gather. 

Online networking can also prove valuable, especially if you want to connect with people who live outside Victoria. “I think LinkedIn is the best professional network,” says Cotton. “It’s massive around the world and you can always find people who are in your industry.” 

Most of these networking options involve talking to or messaging strangers, which may make you anxious. But it doesn’t have to. “It’s all about that fear of rejection,” says John Espley, founder of Victoria-based business consulting company Connection Skills. “Anywhere you’re supposed to be networking or socializing … that gives you unwritten permission to speak and to go and introduce yourself.”

Stay Connected

What’s even more important than making connections is nurturing them, which means staying in touch, showing up to events and being available when a contact reaches out. “The more that people in your network get to know you and you them, the more you can help each other,” Cotton says. That means being available to help others just as you hope they will be there for you.

Even if you don’t need help from your network right now, keeping in touch with your connections can prove invaluable. “You can’t always anticipate when you’re going to need to switch jobs or careers or industries,” says Cotton. “You don’t know when you’re going to need that latent network … so nurturing it becomes important.”

Although some of the connections in your network may have nothing to do with your career or goals right now, it’s still important to stay in touch with them. “A contact that might not ever be in a position to do business with you directly might still be in a position to recommend you,” Espley says. 

To stay top of mind with your contacts, Espley suggests reaching out to your connections quarterly or every six months; connect with them via LinkedIn or email, chat with them at work functions and mixers, invite them for a coffee and “like” their social media posts.

Build Your Connections

Once you’ve started developing a network, you may find that yours isn’t working the way you want it to. And that means it may be time to rethink your connections.

Start by looking at the density of your network. Say you’re in search of a finance job. You email or call all your connections, asking them if they’ve heard of any relevant opportunities. But none of them have. “It could be that you’re not getting good ideas because all of your advisers know each other,” says Cotton. If that’s the case, you’ll need to make new connections, perhaps in different industries or other cities.

Next, look at the depth of your network. Is it better to have a few meaningful connections or a broad but shallow network with low support from lots of people? “Because people change jobs so frequently, it’s actually better to have a smaller, deeper network of people who know you,” Cotton says. These people will understand your personality, skills and interests, and have a sense of your goals and can better help you achieve your goals.

Your network may also not be diverse enough. You may be missing contacts of different ethnicities, genders, ages and educational background, or who work in different industries, says Cotton. Diversifying your network can provide different viewpoints, opinions and perspectives.

Networks that don’t work often lack connections who are senior to you in some way. People like this can provide opportunities that others cannot, like recommending you to other employers or providing valuable insights into hiring processes.

Lack of access to role models is another concern. “This often happens to women and people of colour,” says Cotton. “Sometimes it’s very hard to find someone who’s a role model for what you’re looking to do.” Do some research and connect with someone who does what you want to, even if they’re far-flung. They can help you define professional goals and the most generous of them can help you achieve them. 

Finally, don’t forget that networking should be mutually beneficial. It’s about meeting people who can help you, true, but you also need to be available to help others with contacts, connections, advice and mentorship as needed. Besides, those mixers and meetups can actually be a lot of fun.

Who knows — you may find you don’t hate networking so much after all.

10 Networking Tips for Introverts (or Anyone)

Search for people who can make a difference.

The key to networking isn’t just about how many people you connect with, but rather the quality of people you bring into your network. Seek out individuals who can make a difference in your career. 

Search for connections online.

Professionals often use social media to build their networks. You probably already have people in your network with whom you can build deeper relationships.

Ask your colleagues for contacts.

If you currently work in an office setting you can ask colleagues about their own networks, and if they can connect you with others in your field. 

Consider your passions.

What are you truly passionate about, even if it’s not in the industry where you currently work? If you work in finance, but have a passion for mental health, consider joining a networking group of mental health professionals.

Be willing to help first.

When you’re new to networking, be willing to support the careers of others in your network. The more you help others, the more likely they may be to help you when you need it. 

Add value to your relationships.

If you’re contacting a new person to make a professional connection, spend some time researching them first so you understand what they do. This allows you to identify how you can add value to their professional life. 

Go to networking events.

Attending informal networking events and meetups is a great way to meet new people and build valuable professional relationships. Look for networking events related to your industry or desired career path.

Develop an online presence.

Keeping your profile up to date and including all your experience, interests, education and qualifications can help you attract like-minded people and catch the attention of recruiters.

Stay updated.

Staying current on the latest trends in your industry can add value to the relationships you build through networking. Attend industry events and keep track of new technologies and trends in your field.

Focus on meaningful connections.

Building long-lasting professional relationships takes time. When you establish a rapport and develop a strong connection with a peer, you’re more likely to continue that relationship long term, which can benefit both of you.