If you’re interested in a career in business, you’ll need to learn more than economics, marketing, and management techniques — you need to learn how to network. What is business networking? It’s simply making connections that can nurture your career, and there’s an art form to it. Whether you end up meeting a possible hiring manager or an entrepreneurial partner, every connection you make holds possibility.
Some people are natural networkers, but for others, it’s an acquired skill. The good news is the more you do it, the easier it gets — and if you’re driven to succeed in business, you’ll be doing a lot of it.
We’ve compiled some best practices and networking tips for students, so you know what to do and—equally important—what not to do. Use this primer of business networking do’s and don’ts to get ready to put yourself out there.
It’s never too soon to start networking. Even on your first day of your first year of business school, start building relationships at every opportunity. Look for like-minded peers and foster relationships. Accept every opportunity to meet with people in your chosen profession. Put out the word to friends and family, create student groups, and get to know your professors.
As you prepare for networking, you should start by building your personal brand. Think about what sets you apart and what you have to offer, be it a special skill, a cultural perspective, or just a great idea. Practice your “elevator pitch,” or a 30-second speech for selling yourself and your qualifications for a particular job or opportunity.
Good networkers know how to play the long game. Not every person you meet is a job offer waiting to happen… yet. You want to build connections that will benefit you throughout your career, and often that comes from creating relationships that may not have an immediate professional payoff.
That classmate might be the next big disrupter with a hot tech property or become an SVP of a big brand. Find people you respect now, and stay in touch for later.
Make it a priority to get your LinkedIn profile up and running. LinkedIn is the professional network, and you’ll be expected to have a presence. It’s not just pervasively used by recruiters seeking talent, but it’s also a turnkey tool for job hunting and building out a wider network.
People need professional space in the same way they need personal space. When you follow up (and you should), do it through contact information you’ve been given directly, or find the person on LinkedIn. If you’re looking for points of common interest, you can take a peek at someone’s other social media, but don’t make it weird. Bringing up someone’s kids or commenting on their vacation destinations can be intrusive and off-putting.
Know somebody who knows somebody? Don’t be shy about asking for an introduction. Connections in common are great professional capital — use them!
Networking through your existing personal network can get you access you wouldn’t have on your own, and being vouched for is a priceless shortcut to making a great first impression. Remember to thank whoever does the introducing.
Avoid a common error many people make in professional conversations: don’t get too personal or overshare. When you network, remember this is a professional relationship you’re pursuing. Even if you really hit it off with someone, don’t let the conversation get too familiar. This doesn’t mean you can’t make small talk about the weather or share an anecdote about a recent trip. Just use your instincts in conversation and observe “personal” space.
A good rule of thumb the first time you meet someone is to listen more than you speak. Not only does this demonstrate courtesy, but you learn more about a potential connection. Yes, you’ll want to sell yourself and present your pitch, but make sure that’s all couched in two-way conversation.
Practice being present when you’re talking to someone new. And if you’re not good with names or faces, teach yourself how to use memory techniques like mnemonic devices. People are flattered when you remember them, and often turned off when you don’t.
When someone becomes successful, lapsed friends and colleagues tend to come out of the woodwork. People notice if they only hear from you when you want something, or when their ship has come in. Don’t be a fair-weather friend; make sure to keep in loose touch not just when there’s something you need, but also when you have something to offer, even if that’s just a no-strings-attached congratulations on someone’s promotion or achievement.
Yes, you should attend networking events, but elbows can be rubbed in almost any setting. In fact, making a connection outside of an event may help you stand out from the sea of hand-shakers at an organized meet-and-greet.
So next time you’re on a cross-country flight or waiting at the DMV, strike up a conversation. You never know who might be sitting right next to you. And even if it’s not a professional connection, it’s great practice for your people skills.
We mentioned networking is a long game, and it sometimes requires patience. It’s also, to some degree, about volume. Meet as many people as often as you reasonably can. If you haven’t seen practical returns on all your networking efforts yet, hang in there. Keep at it, and keep in touch with those you’ve met so far. Someone you met a year ago might pop up in your inbox tomorrow, or someone you meet next week might be an instant click.
If you’ve been offered opportunities by others, make sure you do the same when you’re in the position to do so. This applies even before you’re established; for example, let’s say one of your connections has an opportunity you’re not quite right for, but you know someone who is. Help them bot out with a referral. People in business have long memories for favors, and a reputation as a generous colleague will pay for itself.
Play up your experience, but don’t make up your experience. This is for your own good. As you start to network over time, your connections will begin to overlap. If you have been lying or exaggerating about past jobs or education, eventually you’ll get caught. Someone will know someone who worked at the same company or went to the same school, and you’ll be left with a broken connection and a damaged reputation.
When a networking opportunity leads to an exchange of contact information, consider it an invitation to follow up. A follow-up is often expected, so don’t squander the opening. Reach out within a few days to reconnect and continue the conversation. Remember to keep your outreach friendly, brief, and reference what you discussed when you first met.
The biggest “DO” in networking is, well, doing it. Now that you have your etiquette down, start making those connections. Use every channel available, from LinkedIn to networking events to Friendsgiving dinner. Be brave, be bold, stand out. And stick with it!
WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.