My first job out of college? Secured only because of a connection with one of my former professors, who is still a very good friend.
My relocation to Columbia, South Carolina in 2002? A number of faculty from the University of South Carolina recruited me to the Arnold School and since have all become friends, mentors, and colleagues.
My second job? An introduction made at a conference followed by “call me if I can ever help you.” That call led to a graduate assistantship, then a full-time position, and ultimately a 15-year career at the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
I’m not a big believer in the old saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” because I don’t like the implied “either/or” proposition. Let’s be clear, people who know things and have skills will always be preferred to those who don’t. That said, building your network at this stage of your career is part of the success equation that you don’t want to leave out.
For what it’s worth, here are a few tips that have helped me along the way.
- Focus on quality and quantity. Again, this is not an “either/or” proposition. Some will tell you that quality is much more important than quantity. I don’t disagree, per se, but early on in your career it’s a bit tricky to understand what constitutes a quality connection. Somebody has probably already told you that having friends, subscribers, and followers isn’t the same as a collection of business cards and true contacts, so I won’t spend much time on that point except to remind you that nothing will ever replace the importance of a good old-fashioned handshake and personal outreach. But, I’m not totally dismissive of the power of connections via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. assuming your pages aren’t full of Saturday night benders in Five Points (that’s a whole different blog post). It’s 2016. To suggest that social media doesn’t matter is shortsighted and old school. It can help to build out the quantity of your network for sure, but recognize that the quality contacts usually only come from being able to look someone in the eye and shake their hand.
- Make it memorable. Networking isn’t “speed dating.” It’s about creating deep and meaningful connections. Find a reason for the person you’re interacting with to remember you and for you to remember them. Figure out how to make a connection with everyone you meet – where are they from, what is their dog’s name, what are they involved in – something that makes them memorable as well. This works to your advantage because if you show genuine interest in conversation and connection rather than just talking about yourself, then people will remember you too! In other words, if you’re only networking to find a job that will come through in the interaction, you’re doing it wrong! If you’re networking and interested in meeting people to build your connections and contacts, then be sure to leave your mark.
- Follow up! Put down the cell phone and pick up a pen, or at least a keyboard. Spending the few minutes it takes to drop a handwritten note means a lot and will set you apart from the rest. An email will likely suffice, but if you’ve just met a new professional contact for the first time, pulling their cell phone off a business card and sending them a text isn’t going to get you very far. When you reach out, reference the connection you established in #3; show that you were really listening.
- It’s an “all the time” thing. Networking doesn’t start and stop. It isn’t limited to a single event or program. Creating a strong network begins with recognizing that you should never dismiss an opportunity or a person as insignificant. Given this, perhaps my best advice to you is to get out there and get involved. Volunteer, attend events, ask your existing friends and colleagues to help make an introduction for you, and join a professional organization(s). Every time you interact with another person is an opportunity to build your network whether you intended it to be, or not. The sooner you realize this, the sooner your network begins to grow.
Forrest Alton is the President of 1000 Feathers, a consulting firm he launched in 2016. Prior to this Mr. Alton spent 15 years at the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, including 10 as the Chief Executive Officer. His leadership and vision resulted in significant growth for an agency that is now seen as a national leader on issues related to adolescent health. His new firm is focused on bringing the work of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors closer together – in both vision and strategy – and on providing aggressive leadership development to help prepare organizations to better handle a changing landscape and achieve results. Learn more at http://www.1000feathers.com/.
Join Forrest and other alumni of University of South Carolina graduate programs from 4:00-5:00 p.m. on October 28, 2016 for a Twitter chat focused on professional development. Find us at @GradSchoolatUSC and using #GRADprofdev.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Contact Dr. Heather Brandt at firstname.lastname@example.org.