Networking has both positive and negative connotations – is it a required component of a successful career or a shallow (and sometimes fake) attempt to take advantage of meeting someone? How to network and how to do it well?
In many types of careers, the more senior you become, the more important it is who you know rather than what you know. And that relates to knowing people in both your own organization (maybe in a different department or geography), as well as outside (potential clients, business partners, or other stakeholders). Knowledge can be researched or acquired relatively quickly (esp. in today’s age of Internet and abundance of information); relationships take ages to build. There are countless examples from my own career, when knowing someone resulted in a better answer/outcome for a project I was working on. Some of my jobs/internships were sourced through people I knew. And some of my closest friends also started as business connections (although not planned that way).
I differentiate between two types of connections – on one hand, more high-level (you know of each other, but haven’t established a closer relationship) and on the other hand, deeper relationships with significant mutual trust and respect. There are obviously many degrees of shade between these. You will naturally have many more high-level connections, as they are easier to acquire and maintain, as opposed to deeper relationships. Both are useful, each for different situations. In some cases, you just need to know whom to call and remembering someone’s name/role is enough; in other cases, you need to trust someone to partner on a business opportunity or ask for an advice.
Your personality and personal preference may influence your networking style and strategy. In my case, I am an introvert and I do not enjoy being in large groups of people. It does not necessarily mean I am publicly shy and don’t go to large gatherings, but it drains my energy, which I need to regain afterwards during a quiet moment. My natural preference would thus be to meet people one-on-one or in smaller groups, which allows me to build deeper relationships and get to know them better. At the same time, I also recognize that going to larger events, e.g. industry conferences, allows me to meet more people, who I can then follow up with in a one-on-one setting. If you are shy of going to large people gatherings, just remind yourself that introverts account for one third to one half of the world’s population, so you have a pretty good chance of finding other introverts at the event who will equally prefer a quieter coffee conversation! And the way serendipity works, you are likely to meet at least one relevant person who you establish a connection with (at my recent business school drinks in San Francisco I bumped into someone working at a highly-coveted tech company, a potential investment opportunity, while waiting in line for a drink!).
So how should you think about establishing and maintaining a professional network? Meeting new people depends on your role and interest, but conferences, industry events, alumni gatherings are all good opportunities to meet new people. When going to any event, I tried to find out who is attending and reached out to relevant people in advance to have a coffee. Whenever possible/appropriate, I check options for a speaking/panel opportunity at a conference – that gives me an opportunity to meet with the organizers, other panelists, and also get noticed by other conference attendees who often reach out afterwards. Apart from conferences, you can also reach out to people directly through LinkedIn or your school alumni network and ask for a coffee (for example when you are considering a certain career and would like to find out more about it from someone in a similar role). Introductions through other trusted contacts can also be a good way to enlarge your network.
Equally if not more important than establishing the connections is maintaining them. I try to catch up with my connections on a regular basis – over a breakfast or coffee, and sometimes just a call to see how they are doing and what they are working on. At times I organize small dinners with my former classmates or colleagues to reconnect. I try to be helpful to my network and share relevant articles or information which I think may interest them – a good way to help, while keeping in touch.