Building a professional network is another one of those skills analogous to when we say 'common sense is not that common'. We are naturally social beings and need a network of people to go about our day-to-day lives. However, in addition to a basic social network, it is crucial to build a professional network and guess what.. it does not come naturally to everyone and is in fact a practiced and honed skill. So none of us are born with this knowledge; only as we climb up our career ladder and interact with peers and leaders, do we begin to gradually learn how to go about it.
Whom to network with?
Everyone! You many never know which contact of yours would end up helping you out at a difficult stage or furthering your success. Especially at conferences such as the GHC, you may not even be aware that the person you just casually passed at the escalator, belongs to the same field as yours and could be a great contact to build. So next time, do not hesitate to strike a conversation with the person standing next to you. Or in a general case, be open to making new connections with all the people in your circles. Important pointer - do not exclude social networks to make professional connections. That is a great way to leverage your existing connections to strike a professional chord with.
When you introduce yourself to someone, it is important to make a personal connection every time. You should be confident, cheerful and exuberant to meet the other person. A smile can go a long way and make sure to look the other person in the eye when you're speaking. This ensures that you will both remember each other and not forget this casual conversation at the turn of the hour.
So how does networking further your career?
A good network has manifold advantages. It makes you and your work known in this era of information overload where you need to strive to make your mark. Also it provides a source of recommendation letters from your advisors or managers, co-workers, directors, other areas of your company, and recruiters in industry. Through your network, you can get invites to give talks and interviews, or to be on several program committees. You can find your network useful in joining technical or community service organizations that help you contribute to the progress around you. Essentially, talking to more like minded people leads to new ideas on topics of interest or different slants on old ideas, thus helping you in your work or when forming new collaborations. Last but not the least, networking also ends up creating long and lasting friendships!
Now comes the harder part.. how do I talk to complete strangers?
The approach is simple - have an "elevator speech" ready and practiced. This is a very concise introduction to you and your work, enough to pique interest and limit it to 2-3 sentences with one sentence each explaining what your project is, what is the value, and what problem it solved. Be sure to explain in layman terms as well to make it relevant to the other person. Convince the person in this short while that what you work on is new and cool. That shouldn't be a problem right? Well it can be if you tend to ramble when it comes to explaining your work or research that your whole world revolves around. Hence, practicing the "elevator speech" frequently will keep you on top of your communication skills while meeting new people.
And of course, do not be shy. I can relate to this as I sometimes hesitate ever so slightly before striking a conversation, thinking why would the other person reciprocate? The trick is not to suddenly go from shy to extrovert but simply to believe in yourself and be confident. If they are not able to interact with you directly, more often that not, they will always direct you to some of their contacts who might help you. You can see how this helps to grow your network through mutual connections. Talking about reciprocation, you should equally show interest in their project and discuss about it; be curious and ask questions about how they got where they did today, what was the journey and the joys and challenges faced.
Follow-up without fail!
It doesn't end there. Following up is as important as anything else you do in the meeting. YOU need to initiate the follow-up. Be ready to be out of your comfort zone and ask for definitive replies to achieve closure on your discussion. Making new connections might come easily to some but maintaining them is equally important and tactfully following up helps achieve that. Earlier in the follow-up process, make sure you remind the other person of the venue and context that you guys first met at and as correspondence grows, this might no longer be needed.
Along with the TO DO's, there are also some important DO NOT's to professional networking. Firstly, don't burn bridges - do not inadvertently commit networking-suicidal mistakes that will ruin your relationships. In a company scenario, one way to avoid burning bridges is to always be humble and respectful towards your managers and to adapt yourself to their feedback instead of being arrogantly adamant and doing something unaccounted for. Don't have a low tolerance on constructive criticism or take things personally (being women, that means overcoming our natural tendency!). Don't use too much of people's time (e.g. hold frequent unnecessary conferences instead of covering ground in your work). Secondly, dont treat your professional network as dumping ground for your personal problems, or for gossiping around. Also do not go overboard with including people from all your circles into your professional network and draw the line consciously, prioritizing ur needs. Do not treat your network as "resources for use" but relationships to nurture and do this tastefully.
Equipped with this knowledge, and as you gather more and more new experiences, you will not only enhance your academic and professional network, but also enhance your personality and be a better and successful person :)