Many practical idealists that I meet have a negative view of networking. They think it’s inherently sleazy, that it suggests dishonesty, that it’s all business.
I disagree. I see networking as an honest and personal way to build your circle of fellow humans, to open yourself to connecting genuinely, and to fuel one another’s meaningful work.
Each time you walk up to someone at a party and say “hello,” you reply to a “you two should meet” email from a colleague, or you learn about someone who is doing good work and you send them a quick note to say “I admire you,” you enrich someone’s life. Whether you listen to someone tell their story, you offer feedback or suggest a resource, or you begin to build a longer term relationship, you are simply sharing a life experience. Where that may lead is irrelevant at that point.
Of course, networking can be useful beyond the initial connection stage. Each conversation adds data and richness to their — and your — arsenal. You do not need to recruit a board member or engage a grantmaker in order to see the fruits of your networking. You may get — or give — a nugget of advice or an encouraging smile that proves instrumental down the road.
Then, once you decide that networking is not evil, you can turn your attention to making it less difficult.
Here are my tips:
1. “Be here now.” Everywhere you go, make eye contact and notice the humans around you. Smile, say hello, or strike up a conversation. When you encounter someone with positive energy, absorb it.
2. Remember people. Make a mental or actual note. Ask for a business card. Get in this habit, and it becomes second nature.
3. Don’t have an agenda. You may be laser focused on hiring your CFO or finding office space today, but leave that baggage at the door. Every new connection is pluripotent. You may find a friend, a mentor, or a business associate (or a homebrew partner, carpool buddy, or HTML tutor for that matter), but you won’t notice if you have an agenda.
4. When you have chemistry with someone, make sure to connect with them again. Invent a system for yourself. I start a new email when I read or hear something that reminds me of someone. Sometimes it takes me weeks to compose and send that email, but having the open message ensures that I will eventually reach out. I also keep a notebook with names and main themes from conversations, and I skim that notebook periodically and resume conversations that have become relevant again.
5. Be a resource. When you connect with someone, think about who they should meet or what resources you can suggest. Pay it forward.
6. Dispel the myth that networking is all business. Help the young people in your life to get comfortable with it early. In the age of technology and anonymity, human connections have become increasingly critical to the success of practical idealists — and of all of us.
7. And as my daughter wrote when she was 5: “It is vary inportent to be responsibl.” Be sure to do your homework before meetings, be prepared with questions, be on time for calls, and send thank you notes.
8. Network, rinse, repeat. The more you do the steps above, the easier they will get. I recently heard someone say that networking is like a muscle. Reps will indeed make you stronger.
Good luck, and happy networking circle-building!
Makaela Kingsley is Director of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University.