Welcome to Part 8 of our #SocialImpactCareerGuide! This step is all about a topic that many of us have a love-hate relationship with: networking. No matter what you do, networking is critical to success. A well-developed network can help you secure new business deals, job offers, or connections to other great people. Despite these potential benefits, why does the thought of networking still make so many of us cringe?
The answer lies in the approach. As Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and her colleagues have noted, “transactional networking” — i.e., “networking with the goal of advancement” — often makes participants feel so bad about themselves, they feel “dirty.” Put another way, going straight for the benefits without first building the relationship is a bit like trying to put icing on a cake that you haven’t baked yet.
That isn’t to say that networking can’t lead to fruitful transactions like the ones listed above – it can. But those are the side effects of relationship building. In this article, we’ll walk you through how to take a relationship-based approach to networking that feels – and works – better than the standard transactional approach.
This in-depth guide is separated in two main sections:
Section I: Preparing yourself to network virtually
Section II: How to network virtually
Section I: How to Prepare Yourself for Successful Virtual Networking
In this section of our virtual networking guide, we share the three key things you should do to get ready for virtual networking:
- Learn about relationship-based networking and adopt it as your mindset
- Set SMART networking goals
- Optimize your LinkedIn profile for networking
While transaction-based networking asks “what can you do for me,” relationship-based networking asks “what can we do to support each other.” It involves actively showing interest in the other person, and approaching interactions in a way that is warm, curious, generous, and kind. Here are 5 best practices to incorporate throughout your networking efforts to ensure you’re adding value to all parties:
1. Show a genuine interest in something you and the other person have in common.
Points of common interest are a great way to start building a relationship with someone without coming across as salesy. For people in your existing network, it’s a great reason to get back in touch, and for people you’re just meeting, it’s an immediate point of connection. As Indeed explains, “If you know that you have something in common, begin a conversation by mentioning it. You might have a mutual friend or acquaintance, have attended the same college or work in the same industry. You can use any similarity to make a connection, such as “I noticed you work for Gregorson & Co. My former supervisor, Ellen Bylar, is in the sales department there. Do you know her?”
2. In general, ask more questions than you make statements, particularly when first meeting someone.
Networking can be intimidating, and sometimes, we’re too preoccupied with what we are going to say and how we’re going to be received that we completely forget about the other person. This is a mistake. According to job-search site Monster, “Although networking is technically about self-promotion, skip the temptation to launch right into your elevator pitch. “Selling yourself is weird and awkward,” says Jessica Hagy, author of How to Be Interesting, “but getting to know someone is a natural thing. If you let other people open up and talk about themselves, you become memorable—a safe person, a friend.”
3. Look for opportunities to do something for the other person.
As Silicon Valley Networking expert Adam Rifkin explains, “It is better to give than to receive. Look for opportunities to do something for the other person, such as sharing knowledge or offering an introduction to someone that person might not know but would be interested in knowing.” This doesn’t have to be something time consuming or cumbersome, either – surprisingly small actions can have disproportionately large effects. In the book Give and Take, author Adam Grant explains, “One of my personal favorite [tactics] is probably Adam Rifkin’s idea of the “Five Minute Favor” (if you can do something for someone that will take less than five minutes, just do it.) A lot of people look at the idea of helping others and say, “Gosh, that’s going to be time consuming, or exhausting, or put me at risk of being exploited.” I think that Adam’s idea enables us to a sense of, “What if I just took a couple minutes every day to try to help someone in a way that is a small commitment to me, but could be of large benefit to them?”” This typically takes the form of offering an introduction, serving as a reference, providing feedback, or broadcasting their content on social media.
4. Incorporate the “3 Golden Questions” at the end of each interaction
You want meetings to be friendly and personal but you also want to lay down the foundation of a relationship that creates genuine shared value for both parties. Super-networker Julie Robinett suggests the following “3 Golden Questions” in her book, How to Be a Power Connector:
“Before you leave any meeting or encounter, you always should ask what I call Three Golden Questions.
- First, “How can I help you?” This gives you an opportunity to add value immediately with a suggestion, a referral, or an opportunity, and it will establish you as a giver and potentially someone they want to know.
- Second, “What ideas do you have for me?” Asking for ideas allows the people you are talking with to add value to you as you have (hopefully) added value to them.
- Third, “Who else do you know that I should talk to?” The very connection you need may be in this individual’s network, and the only way you can find out is with this question.”
5. Follow up consistently and thoughtfully
As Eric Barker explains, “Good relationships are built little by little, and there are no shortcuts, so do not try to push the relationship to progress faster than is natural. Because relationships are progressions, follow-ups are important.” One-time interactions are nowhere near as meaningful as repeat interactions nurtured over time. And when it comes to following up, go beyond a simple “thank you for your time” email to see how you can further the relationship by adding value for the recipient. The Ladders suggests asking yourself questions like, “Did you mention an article in the context of your conversation? Find the link and pass it along. Did this person mention he or she was looking for a good place to eat in a specific neighborhood? Make a recommendation. By making the email about the recipient, you build the foundation for a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship.”
To help you do that, we’ve created this free networking tracker, where you can record key information about each new contact, including: name, phone number, email, LinkedIn profile, employer, job title, how you met, date of last contact, notes from your last conversation, and next steps to follow up. In addition, we recommend setting time aside – about 1 hour each week – to focus exclusively on building and nurturing your networking relationships.
Before you start reaching out to people, take the time to clarify what you’re trying to achieve. Are you looking for a potential mentor? Someone to give you advice about career next steps? A potential collaborator for a new project? Having a clear intention will help you reach out to the right people, in the right way.
We recommend putting pen to paper and writing out 1-2 SMART goals for your networking activities. As a quick refresher, SMART goals are goals which are:
- Specific: Try and answer who, what, when, where, why, and/or how.
- Measurable: A clear metric or result that will show you have accomplished it.
- Attainable: Stretches you just enough, but is still possible.
- Relevant: Connects to your true direction.
- Time-bound: A day that it will be accomplished by.
“Grow my network” is not a SMART goal – it’s vague, not measurable, or time bound. Instead, try to get more specific, and consider setting both a short-term and long-term networking goal using the SMART format.
A good example of a short-term goal would be something like this: “Reach out to 10 storytelling professionals who work for purpose-driven companies by the end of the week, and set up time with at least one of them to learn more about their career path and recommendations for scaling content marketing efforts based on their experience.”
A good example of a long-term networking goal would be something like this: “To get a job at a social enterprise, I want to build 25 LinkedIn connections with social enterprises leaders by the end of 3-months, which I will do by creating a list of the top 100 by the end of month 1, message them all by the end of month 2, and follow/like/share their content over all 3 months”
Once you’ve clarified your goals, the next step is to ensure that your online profiles are up to date and reflect the direction you want to take your career. When you do eventually start reaching out, the first thing most people will do is look you up on LinkedIn. Your profile can (and will) influence whether a new contact is receptive to your ask to connect, so take the time to optimize it (more on how to do that below). In addition to supporting your outbound networking efforts (you reaching out to others), an optimized LinkedIn profile will also support inbound networking (other people finding and reaching out to you.)
Let’s start with the basic building blocks of your LinkedIn profile:
1. Your profile picture and background image
Use a high-quality, professional headshot, preferably 400×400 pixels. Larger images are fine (up to 8MB), but be sure your image isn’t smaller than the standard 400×400 pixels or else it will render as grainy. Be sure that you are the only person in the picture, and that your face takes up at least 60% of the frame. The LinkedIn Talent blog has more tips for choosing the right profile photo here.
Together with your profile picture, your background image is one of the first things people see when they visit your profile. As this guide from Creatopy explains, “Unlike the profile picture, which is usually kept professional, the banner image lets you showcase more of your personality. The fact that most people don’t bother changing the default LinkedIn background image will work to your advantage. You’ll be able to grab the attention of your profile visitors just by having something different show up as your header image.”
According to LinkedIn’s official website, the recommended background photo dimensions are 1584 x 396 pixels. Like the profile photo, file size can be up to 8MB, but if you choose to go smaller or bigger, maintain a 4:1 ratio. When it comes to formats, LinkedIn accepts JPG, GIF, and PNG.
Think of your LinkedIn background photo as a way to let some of your personal brand shine through. Here is a great example from one of our Global Fellows, Stef:
Based on the image and text in the background image, it’s immediately clear that Stef works in tech for good, and is a valuable signal for people who may be interested in the same thing and want to connect with her. (Editor’s note: to learn how Stef pivoted her career to tech for good, check out her career change story here.) For more inspiration, check out the examples and suggestions for background images here.
2. Your headline
Second to your photo and background image, your headline is one of the most visible parts of your profile. Your headline appears just below your profile image, and can have a maximum of 120 characters. According to Jobscan, “Not only does it stretch across the top of your profile page, it also introduces you on newsfeed posts, the “People You May Know” section, and LinkedIn job applications. Whether it’s being viewed by your business contacts or a recruiter, your LinkedIn headline is key to making a positive impression and explaining exactly what you bring to the table.”
In addition, your headline is also one of the most important fields for LinkedIn’s search algorithm. As the Jobscan guide goes on to explain, “Not only should your LinkedIn headline portray you as a credible member of your industry, it should also contain strategic keywords that help you appear higher in LinkedIn searches.”
If you want to increase the chances that people discover you organically on LinkedIn, you’ll want to place an emphasis on keywords — words which people will search for on LinkedIn and that will show up on search engines. You can learn more about how to select the right keywords in this guide.
3. Your summary, or “bio”
Your summary is the text box at the top of your LinkedIn profile, just below your photo. It’s open-ended space (2,000 characters max) where you give an overview of your professional life. According to the LinkedIn Talent blog, “Your summary is the one place you define yourself in your own words, free of start dates and titles. Whether you use it to put career choices in context, highlight your biggest achievements, or show off your personality, the summary is your chance to put your best self out there. It strengthens your first impression in a way no other profile section can.” For inspiration, check out these 10 great examples of stand-out summaries from the LinkedIn blog, as well as this list of summary examples for every type of job seeker from the Muse.
4. Work experience
While you can include all of your previous work experience in this section, you don’t have to. Use the LinkedIn work experience section to focus on the workplaces and experiences that are most relevant to your career path and capture your greatest professional achievements. For more guidance, check out these 12 tips from LinkedIn Pulse.
Networking is a lot like nutrition and fitness: we know what to do, the hard part is making it a top priority.
Section II. How to grow and develop your professional network
While the first section of this virtual networking guide was focused on getting you ready to network, the second section shares four strategies for you to take action and grow your network:
- Revive your existing connections
- Expand your network with 2nd degree connections
- Join networking and mindshare groups
- Help people find you by adding value and sharing useful content
The best place to start is with the network that you already have. This includes all of those existing contacts who you haven’t been in touch with recently, also called “dormant connections.” This might feel counterintuitive at first – wouldn’t the people we’re in most regular contact with offer the most value? Not necessarily. As Give and Take author Adam Grant shared, “despite their good intentions, strong ties tend to give us redundant knowledge. Our closest contacts tend to know the same people and information as we do. Weak ties travel in different circles and learn different things, so they can offer us more efficient access to novel information. Most of us miss out on this novel information, filling our networks with people whose perspectives are too similar to our own.”
As job search strategist Hannah Morgan explains, starting by reaching out to people you already know is easier than doing a cold reach out, and will help you build your confidence. She also notes that “Email and phone (and even texting) are still the best ways to reach people. Don’t rely on LinkedIn messaging because most people log in less than weekly.”
With that in mind, we suggest sending an email like this to help you revive dormant ties:
If you receive a positive response, be sure to actively move the process forward by sending a calendar invitation for the date and time you agree on. After the call, remember to use your networking tracker to record key details of the interaction, which will help you follow up with helpful, relevant information to keep building the relationship.
For example, imagine you used the template above to set up a catch-up call with an old colleague named Dave. During your catch-up, you learn that Dave’s biggest focus right now is adding more data scientists to his team. Afterwards, you would record the date of your catch-up call in the ‘date of last contact’ column, and record the information Dave shared with you in the ‘notes from last contact’ column. In the ‘next steps’ column, you could add something like “re-share job opening on LinkedIn at Dave’s company, then check in with Dave to see how the recruitment efforts are going and offer to introduce him to data scientists in your network.” From there, you would add a date to the tracker for when you should complete it by.
Here’s what that would look like in the tracker:
As we shared in this previous article, LinkedIn is one of the most powerful tools to grow your professional network because you can see who the people you already know are connected to. The people you already know and are connected to are your first-degree connections, and the people that they are connected to (but you aren’t yet) are second-degree connections.
In the same way that dormant ties can be more valuable than strong ones, second degree connections can also add tremendous value. To look at potential mutual connections you would like to be introduced to, search keywords related to the roles or industries you’re interested in and filter by second-degree, as shown below:
Once you’ve identified second-degree connections you’d like to be introduced to, you can use this email template that we previously published in our article about virtual networking to help you do that:
Once you’ve been introduced by your mutual contact and connected on LinkedIn, you can deepen the relationship by setting up time to connect via phone or video call. Here is an email template that we previously published in our article about deepening connections with new networking contacts to help you do that:
We’ll expand on why this is helpful to networking in the next section, but for now, you can think of following influencers and joining groups as a way to expand the circle of people you have the chance to come into contact with.
A little bit of online research will go a long way in helping you identify which thought leaders / influencers are most relevant to your career goals. A good place to start is by googling “top (specialty) thought leaders to follow on LinkedIn”. For example, here is a list of top technology thought leaders to follow on LinkedIn, and this list includes influencers in categories like digital marketing, management, and productivity. Another way to increase the number of relevant thought leaders that you follow is to draw from your own personal experience – if you read a great article, look up the author on LinkedIn and follow them. If you hear someone speak on a webinar that really resonates with you, look them up on LinkedIn and follow them. When you follow someone, it means that their future posts will appear in your feed, which we explain more about in the next section.
When it comes to finding relevant groups, it’s all about keywords. Try searching different combinations of keywords on LinkedIn and filtering for groups to see what comes up. Here are a few examples:
As you can see from the examples above, each group will have a short description that will help you choose the most relevant one(s) to join. Once you’re accepted into the group, activity within the group will appear in your notifications and on your feed.
Another great way to nurture existing and new relationships is to proactively add value through commenting on posts in your feed, re-sharing content from your connections and thought leaders, and sharing valuable insights and tagging connections who may benefit from them. As we mentioned above, when you follow relevant thought leaders and join relevant groups, their activity will show up on your feed.
Allocate some of that 1-hour per week to scrolling through your LinkedIn feed to identify opportunities to proactively add value. A helpful framework to think about whether your comment, post, or re-share would add value is to ask yourself: 1. Is this useful? 2. Is it something others will benefit from? 3. Is it something I can speak about with authority through direct experience?
Here are a few examples of what that could look like:
Why we like this example: Re-sharing an interesting job opportunity is a great way to show support for the hiring organization and your contacts there, while also adding value to people in your network who are job searching.
Why we like this example: By commenting on a thought-leader’s post with her own relevant experience, Anna is helping the original post get more traction and engagement, while also increasing her visibility among the original poster and others interested in the same topic.
Why we like this example: Tagging people in the comments who may be interested in an event is a great way to add value both to the people you’re tagging and the original poster by increasing post engagement.
Networking is hard work, and something that requires consistent effort. But the long-term value it generates is well worth it. As you embark on your networking journey, remember the key lessons from this guide:
- Get ready to network by setting goals, optimizing your LinkedIn profile for networking, and using a relationship-based model.
- Networking like your job depends on it by reviving your existing network, asking for introductions to second degree connections, engaging in virtual networking groups, and adding value to your network by sharing/posting high quality and useful content.
Need more help expanding your network? Join our community of professionals from around the world that are focused on using their careers to make the world better by applying to the MovingWorlds Institute.