The Importance Of The Coffee Date And Other Informal Networking Tips
Kendra T. Anderson is a digital strategist with over five years experience in marketing, content distribution, social media, and brand building.
Networking is like the teethbrushing of career growth: you always have to do it, even when you’re tired; the more you do it, the healthier you are; and sometimes, it leaves you with a minty fresh feeling. And informal networking is like the flossing that always gets skipped even though it is recommended strongly by your dentist.
I’m kidding, but only partially. Most women understand the value of networking, but don’t do enough of it. It’s easy to push it off when you’ve got a lot on your plate, or when you’re exhausted, or really, for any reason. It’s not until you have a specific career-related need that you remember the value of tapping into your professional network, and often, that one-time ask isn’t effective.
The key is to incorporate informal networking into your regular schedule: coffee dates, phone calls, email conversations, etc. Why are these meetings important? They improve your networking skills and grow your professional contact group; and in a casual environment, stakes are lower, so it’s easier to absorb valuable knowledge.
Jen Scott, Senior Director of Career Management at The Advisory Board Company, offers this advice:
“Cultivating a good professional network will provide you with a proven advantage as you navigate important career moves, gain critical feedback, and develop essential skills. (While formal networking, sponsorship, or mentoring programs are also helpful, the opportunities for that are more limited – although if you are invited to be part of such a program, accept!) It’s a great way to build key relationships.”But most of the power of a network is harnessed informally – through casual and organically-formed bonds with others – perhaps a shared interest or favorite sports team as well as a common area of professional or career interest.
You know it’s important, so how can you make the most of informal networking? Here are three tips:
1. Get out of your own way
Networking is prey to all the pitfalls of social interaction – we feel constant pressure to make a good impression and say the right things. But while timidity can hold you back when going to a party, this is business, and it shouldn’t interfere with your goals. In a professional setting, networking is about marketing yourself, and the more confidence you have, the better job you’ll do.
Joanna Lindenbaum, Owner of Soulful Coaching for Busy Women, puts it this way:
“Connecting with colleagues, contacts, and community members is vital to creating a successful career or business for yourself. This is because at its heart, marketing (networking) is about creating relationships and connections. Marketing isn’t just for business owners. It’s for anyone who is seeking visibility, acknowledgement, and recognition in their career.”Still, it’s easy to be intimidated by the thought of meeting a high level professional in your field. But instead of second-guessing yourself, focus on confidence. A couple years ago, while in a cross-functional role at work, the managing partner of the organization offered to discuss career-pathing with me. At the time I assumed it was a passing comment, and was reluctant to follow up on the offer. When I finally pushed past my timidity and requested a coffee meeting, he was more than happy to spend time answering my questions and offering advice. As a result, I felt more poised and confident, and came away with a lot of great professional food for thought.
2. Have an agenda and a goal
Confidence will help you get your foot in the door, but once you’re there you need to have something intelligent to say. When strategizing for an informal meeting, determine a goal you’d like to achieve as a result of the conversation. Jenn Korducki Krenn of DreamChamps recommends going to the meeting not with the expectation that you’ll immediately have a job prospect, but that you’ll learn something valuable to build on later.
When I moved to New York and began my job search in earnest, I thought an ad agency might be the right fit for me, but didn’t understand the different jobs available. Through a friend of a friend, I reached out to an agency SVP for an informational conversation. Going into that meeting, I knew I needed to find out two things: what roles exist in an agency setting, and which are a good fit for me?
On top of working towards your meeting goal, it’s helpful to have a personalized agenda or list of questions you can ask your professional contact. Do your research on the person’s background, especially if he or she is a high level executive, and think of related topics that would be interesting to him or her. I often start the conversation reiterating my appreciation for taking time to speak with me, emphasizing an aspect of his/her background I think is especially interesting. From there I’ll ask how his or her experience has led to this current role. Discussing his or her professional accomplishments is a great way to break the ice, and leads to a candid conversation.
3. Stay in touch
Your meeting doesn’t end when it’s over. Send a follow up note thanking your contact for a meaningful conversation, and express your intention to keep in touch. Gratitude goes a long way.
Lindenbaum says “The more you establish and deepen relationships with others, the more you get to know them and let them know you, then the more likely you are to be seen in big ways.”
Keep in touch with this new member of your professional network. You can choose to include him or her in your newsletter updates, email a link to a relevant article, or even just send a card on his or her birthday. Casual, sporadic touchpoints help keep the relationship warm, and keep you top of mind.
And now for a challenge: Identify a professional contact you’d like to meet or get to know better. Using the tips above, create a strategy to approach this person – how you will you reach out, what you will say, what your meeting goal will be. Now that you have your action items, get to work, and report back to let us know how it went.
What are your tips for making the most of informal networking? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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