Networking 101

How It Helps You … And How You Can Help Others

Regardless of the quantity and quality of people on your team, you can’t always count on them to meet all of your business needs. You see them every day and know each other so well that you can probably complete each other’s sentences. This can be a real time-saver, but ideas eventually get a tad stale.

Social media has not obliterated the concept of old-fashioned networking. Real human contact keeps ideas fresh and solves problems. A “like” in Facebook is no substitute for in-person interaction. But, you have to know what it is — and how to do it well.

Networking 101

Why You Need Personal and Professional Networks

You have two networks: personal and professional. Your personal network includes friends and family, while your professional network contains people with similar business backgrounds and interests, even if they don’t work with you. There’s often a surprisingly fine line between the two, so never discount either one when you need business help.

Do you want to hire a new rocket scientist for your business? Turning to other professionals is a logical first step. They understand the underlying qualifications that you seek, and they know the right people. But what if they want to keep the best candidates for themselves — or prevent your business from gaining a competitive edge? Well then, your personal network just might win the day! Good news: your cousin Fred was right behind a brilliant rocket scientist during the graduation ceremony. You hire her, and your business takes off!

Bottom line: Turn to anyone with a good head (and helpful heart) to add value to your business.

Where to Find Professional Networks

As long as people exist in the world, there’s probably a professional network where they hang out. Here are some ideas to help you find one. Hopefully, they will help you generate your own creative ideas:

  • Use your favorite search engine: I just tried a search for Chicago-area writers group, and I received a plethora of local area groups and workshops (which are also great places to build your network). Then I tried a search for Chicago-area manufacturing groups, and I was rewarded with plenty of potential information. You may or may not find actual networking groups this way, but the search results are bound to generate good ideas.
  • Contact your local Chamber of Commerce: Not all Chambers of Commerce offer massive levels of support for every industry. But, they exist primarily to build the local business community, often offer specific networking events and training sessions — and they may know people who want to meet you.
  • Turn to the older generation: Have you ever heard of SCORE? It’s a non-profit group that offers mentorship from retired executives. They may no longer be active in a business, but they know plenty of people and can help you identify ways to form meaningful network connections.
  • Look to your hobbies: Do you belong to a runner’s group? Have you talked to the people in your art class? Get to know the people who share your interests, and you might just find someone who shares some knowledge of your profession. Expand conversations past hobby-related topics. It’s more fun, anyway.

How to Get Involved

I used to belong to the Society for Technical Communication (STC). The dues bought a monthly magazine and a local chapter newsletter. I didn’t get much out of it … until I became an active member. Particularly if a local chapter is within reach of your location, becoming active can include many of the following benefits:

  • Meetings: STC meetings had some great programs, so they generally provided the opportunity to learn something new. Since they were dinner meetings, I could attend alone, knowing that I would meet seven other people around the table. But, the best part was pre-dinner networking over drinks (alcohol not required). I discovered that I could wander into any informal group and get to know some interesting people.
  • Committees and volunteer opportunities: Whether you have time to work on the chapter newsletter or can only afford an occasional stint sitting at a meeting sign-in table, you will meet people in a personal way without the common networking pressure to exchange favors. Frankly, I became very popular when I started running the STC-Chicago job board!
  • Phone calls: If your organization sends out a member contact list, you’ve struck gold. Whether you need help, think that you can be of use to someone else, or just want to say “hi,” give them a call. At the very least, you’ll make a new friend.

The Give and Take of Networking

The people in your network are happy to give help, but they may also need help, as well. Here are ways to make it a two-way street:

  • Get over the embarrassment of asking for help: It’s networking, for goodness sake! Everyone in your network expects to give or get something.
  • Form a partnership: View the help that you receive as an opportunity to give something back.
  • Offer help before you’re asked: When someone offers you help, it’s a golden opportunity to offer reciprocal help before they ask for it. So, when they agree to connect you with a new print shop, tell them about potential customers whom you plan to refer to their business.
  • Show appreciation: One disturbing new study says that when asked, most people almost always comply with requests. But, although English speakers lead the pack when it comes to saying, “thank you,” they only do so 14.5 percent of the time. Make sure that you’re the exception rather than the rule; no one minds hearing a little gratitude.

There’s a Big World Out There, So Take Advantage of It

If you run your business by yourself, you recognize that you need people who can help you. But even if you have a team of 100 dedicated employees, networking can make it seem like 1,000. Everyone needs help from the outside world. There’s no such thing as an over-developed network.

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