How to start networking from the ground up

Last week, I wrote a post about the importance of networking outside the four walls of your company.

Like others, I maintain this is an essential and critical strategy to bolstering your career trajectory–and to help your current company in many different ways.

In the post, I wondered aloud why so many people ignore this advice. And instead, choose to stay put and rarely network, save the times when they need a network (i.e., losing a job).

Coffee shop

A few people made the point: Maybe some folks don’t know *how* to network.

A point I hadn’t really thought of.

But, it’s probably spot on.

Because most people do want to be the best employee they can be. And, they want to improve their career options.

So, it makes sense.

In light of that, I thought I’d take the time today to offer up my advice on this topic–HOW to network.

I don’t profess to be an expert networker–far from it, in fact. But, I do, essentially, get PAID to network. It makes a lot of business sense for me to know a TON of people. And, for those people to think good things about me, when they think of me.

So, if I had to start networking from the ground up, here’s what I’d do:

Organize regular coffee meetings

I’d take a five-step approach.

Step one: Take stock of your existing network

Everyone has a network. Friends. Family. People at church. People you play softball with. Others you camp with. Sit down and write down EVERYONE you know. Start a list. You’ll probably be surprised how many people are on it.

Step two: Start with your inner circle

Tick down this master list and put “stars” next to the people you would deem in your “inner circle.” Those people you trust the most. Those people you would confide in. Those people you would ask for advice. These are the people you’re going to ask to coffee first.

Step three: Think about your approach

My networking approach: Very casual. I want people to feel at ease with me. So, I ask a lot of questions at coffees. I don’t talk about myself, unless asked. And, I try to appear happy, laid back (yet motivated) and outgoing. I know that sounds kinda stiff and lame, but it pays to think about your approach to these meetings. Do you want to appear more formal, or take a more laid back approach? Are you going to take notes? Will you dress up? What about your appearance? All things to consider with your overall approach. Remember, these meet-ups will start to define people’s impressions and perceptions about you–make sure they start to think what you want them to think.

Step four: Preparation and follow-up

Next up–ask these inner circle folks to coffee. But, don’t just get together with them and “have coffee.” Treat it like a business meeting. Start by preparing. Find out what they’ve been up to lately–new job? Family news? Passion projects? Start a list of 3-5 business-related questions you can ask these folks. You don’t want to be too formal with your prep, but you want to be prepared. After the coffee, practice your follow-up. Send them a note, thanking them for their time. Throw in a couple links to stories or items you talked about in your meeting.

Step five: Ask for 2-3 introductions from your inner circle

Here’s where the “networking” piece really comes in. Ask your inner circle folks to introduce you to 2-3 additional folks from their networks who they think you might benefit in meeting. Might be someone in your industry. Might be someone completely outside your industry–but someone who might be interesting to meet for different reasons. Whatever the case, this is where things really take off. Let’s say you have just 5 people in your inner circle. If those five people refer you to 3 people each, that’s 15 new coffee meet-ups for you! And, keep in mind, these are “warm intros”–so you’ll have at least one point of commonality with the people you’ll be meeting up with (your common friend).

Only use larger “networking” events as conduits to more coffee meet-ups

I’ve written about this before, but the infamous “networking event” is the most over-rated event ever. Think about the scene: 100 people on a rooftop in Uptown Minneapolis. Within an hour, most have had at least one drink. Many are talking to people they already know. Many conversations last 5 minutes or less. Does that sound like the kind of environment where you can really make an impression on someone? My approach to these events: Use them as a way to organize more one-on-one coffee meet-ups. Try to meet new people at these events at all costs. Don’t be afraid to stick out your hand and introduce yourself. After all, isn’t that why you’re there? It’s certainly why other people are there. Meet people. Get contact info. And follow up with those people you think were moderately interesting, and ask them to coffee.

Think about your “soft” networking events

Networking doesn’t have to just happen in a coffee shop or at industry events. It can happen at church. Or, camping. Or, on the boat. For me, my “soft” networking events happen in a few different venues: 1) On the golf course, 2) Camping, and 3) At sporting events. Golfing is a huge one for me. Think about the scene. I get 3-4 UNINTERRUPTED HOURS with an individual doing something I love doing (and hopefully, something they love doing, too). That’s actual networking gold. A close second would probably be sporting events. I attended numerous Minnesota Timberwolves games this year with many different people. Those were all opportunities for me to get to know these folks a bit better–in a scene that’s NOT the workplace. So, think about your soft networking opportunities. Could be volunteering at your kids school. Could be church-related activities. Could be working out. All represent an opportunity to meet new people in a different kind of setting.

Get creative and leverage scale

One thing I love to do is create my own networking opportunities–at scale. I’ve done it many times in the last seven years. A few years back, I tried organizing semi-regular happy hours where I’d invite 5-6 “inner circle” friends and ask them to bring a friend I didn’t know. Worked beautifully. I met new people. My friends met new people. And, we had a lot of fun along the way. More recently, I started a corporate communicator mastermind group here in Minneapolis. We get together every other month for a business meeting followed by dinner. What a great way to meet up with 10-12 of the smartest communicators in Minneapolis–while delivering tremendous value for them. I have another big idea in the works for this fall–but you’ll have to wait for more details on that one 🙂 Think about how you can get creative, once you’ve sharpened your networking powers. How can you create group environments to leverage scale and meet more than one person, while still keeping things fairly intimate.

That’s my advice. Hope it helps a bit. Any other tips you’d share?

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2 comments on “How to start networking from the ground up

  1. Janet Falk says:

    Arik, Valuable ideas.

    For those that DO attend large events, here are FIVE tips to improve your success. http://bit.ly/1GBIMQY

    Janet Falk

  2. Anna says:

    Good tips, but one of the things I’ve always struggled with is coffee. I’m just not a coffee person so “grabbing coffee” with someone feels a bit inauthentic for me. I’d much rather meet someone for happy hour, but that doesn’t seem so appropriate until you know someone fairly well and bars generally are a bit noisy for intro business convos.

    I know I could just grab coffee anyways and just order a chai tea latte, which I’ve done, but I tend to let the lack of knowledge of area coffee shops and non-desire to have actual coffee hold me back.