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Networking is more than just a buzzword. Taking the time to network and build relationships is a key soft skill. Networking helps you create connections with others, which expands your circle of learning and support. Networking is more than meeting people or connecting with them on the Internet. It involves building mutually beneficial links where you can learn from and benefit from each other and the relationship.

Redefine Need

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When many people think of networking, they think of it terms of what they need or what they can get from the networking relationship. Networking can be more beneficial if we instead think of what we can give in our networking relationships. Think about what you have to offer people instead only of what you need from them. When you think in terms of what you can offer as well as what you need from others, it expands your network. You begin to seek out people to whom you can offer yourself, your expertise, and talents rather than just those who have something to offer you. Seeing yourself as someone with much to offer also helps to boost your self-confidence.

Identifying Others’ Interests

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When you network with others, it’s key to identify others’ interests. This helps you identify common interests and goals, as well as areas in which you can offer of yourself. When you meet a new person, ask about his or her goals and interests. Ask yourself how they mesh with your own goals and interests. How do they line up with the goals and interests of your organization? How can you integrate your interests with others’ to find common ground? What common goals do you have? How can you offer of yourself to help others reach their goals? How can they help you reach your goals? Focusing on ways in which your goals and interests integrate with others’ helps create a strong, powerful network that goes beyond simple friendship.

Reach Out

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To be able to network, you have to reach out. There are many ways to do this, both online and in person. One of the easiest ways to reach out is to join professional social networking sites such as LinkedIn, and look for people in your industry or who share your interest. Join groups, both online and in person – professional groups and associations, groups which promote skills you want to develop (such as Toastmasters), and groups that work for causes you value are all good choices.  No matter what you choose as a method of meeting people, the key part of networking is to talk to people. Approach people and start a conversation, and cultivate a presence that makes you approachable. Be responsive when people contact you via email or phone. Make time in your schedule each week to work on networking – schedule it as you would any other important task. Use your soft skills – listening actively, projecting self-confidence, building others up – as you network.

When to Back Off

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As important as knowing how and when to reach out is knowing when to back off. If it becomes clear that the person you are trying to connect with is not responding, it is time to move on. The last thing you want is for someone to feel pursued! Be willing to back off if a person appears to be trying to distance him or herself. Also be aware of being too self-promoting – this can be off putting. Know that you have much to offer to others, and that someone not wanting to build a networking relationship with you is not a reflection of your worth as a person.

Case Study

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Gwen’s manager suggested she join a professional social networking site. She thought it would help Gwen as she stepped into her new role with more responsibility if she networked with people in similar positions. Gwen wasn’t sure – she wasn’t even sure how to create a profile or use the site. She spent some time with her coworker Kwame, who managed the social media for their company. Kwame helped Gwen choose a professional looking headshot for her profile. Then they entered in her information, focusing on her education, work history, and her current role. Kwame advised her to keep her presence on the site professional and positive. They then sought out groups on the site. Gwen joined a group for professional women, a group for people in roles like hers, and a group for alumni of her university. He helped her craft personal, friendly messages to people who seemed to have the same goals and interests. Within a week or so, Gwen had made contact with several people who were very experienced in roles like hers, and who had advice to give. She was also able to help some new alumni from her university with advice on their job searches.