If you’ve ever been to a networking event, you’ve undoubtedly done the obligatory dance of gazing at awkwardly placed name tags, schmoozing over hor d'oeuvres and ultimately exchanging contact information (or not). Then it’s time to switch partners and do the box-step all over again with a new person and same intention.
You may have scored a few meaningful encounters, no doubt because you’re impressively charming and memorable. But effective networking isn’t about making obscure sport of seeing how many little slips of overpriced cardstock you can collect. Beyond business cards, building relationships and maximizing connections—particularly with other women—is essential to your career growth. Making a new contact means nothing if you don't cultivate it, nurture it, grow it and coax it to produce which, in the business world, could translate to any number of opportunities or partnerships.
Here, two entrepreneurs who operate wildly successful enterprises share tips to make you first a proactive networker, then a masterful relationship-builder. Move forward with new confidence.
Go with a goal in mind. “Don’t go to a networking event just to go. Go with the intention of finding someone you share a similar interest with so you can pursue a relationship with that person,” advises Cheryl Wood, CEO of Cheryl Wood Empowers. Instead of meeting 20 people and vowing to stay in touch with all 20, she says, set a realistic expectation beforehand—something like, “I will meet two people I can build a relationship with, whether it’s a partnership, collaboration, mentorship or friendship”—and let that be your guide through the maze of toothy introductions and vigorous handshaking.
Be authentic and authentically helpful. Rosetta Thurman, founder of HappyBlackWoman.com, encourages the ladies she ushers through personal development and entrepreneurship to look for opportunities to connect with potential contacts on a heart level. “Don’t just walk up to someone and say, ‘what do you do?’” she suggests. Instead, ask guided questions like ‘what are your goals?’ “Then you can see how you can help them and they can see how they can help you, whether you’re a hairstylist or a social media consultant,” she adds. Think about how you can barter services, who you can connect them with or what kind of expertise you can offer them. “Sometimes we’re so afraid to give something but when we do, the law of reciprocity comes around and we will eventually get,” adds Wood.
Prioritize the warm connection. After an engaging conversation, maybe even some shared laughs, keep yourself front-of-mind with your new contacts. Wood likens it to dating: you don’t wait two weeks to follow up with someone when you hit it off (at least we hope not). The impetus to stay in touch may be different, but the modus operandi should be the same. “Reach out to people you’ve made an impression on first,” Wood insists. “Show them that you have an interest in maintaining a relationship and working with them. They need to be your top priority, so make contact within a 72-hour time frame.”
Make time for face time. Ease out from behind the laptop and initiate some personal interaction. “Social media has done wonders for my business, but I make it a point to get out and meet people face-to-face,” adds Wood, who is an author, speaker and coach. “They can see how passionate I am about my work and we can see if there’s a synergy between us.” Social media allows for quick engagement—and that’s important—but when you’re sitting directly across from someone’s undivided attention for 30 minutes or an hour, sometimes thoughts and ideas come to mind that wouldn’t have necessarily manifested over the world wide web.
Be purposeful about communication. Thurman agrees that in-person meetings yield great benefits. “I think for women, sitting down over a meal is really powerful. It builds trust,” she affirms. But if that’s not feasible, plug into the connectivity of video conferencing. “I’ve met a lot of people through Skype and built great relationships with others I may have only met one time. We’ve partnered on different things in business, promoted each other, encouraged and motivated each other,” she says. If the webcam thing isn’t necessarily your thing, pick up the phone to separate yourself from the pack of folks who will undoubtedly send out the rote ‘hey, it was nice meeting you’ email.
Support on social media. “Show your new contact how interested you are in what they’re doing by making sure you come back home and follow them on all of their social media sites,” Wood says. But don’t just follow them. When they share something on Twitter, retweet it. If they post something on Facebook or LinkedIn, participate in the conversation. Go beyond just liking their fan page. Engage, engage, engage.
Don’t fall off the face of the Earth. Beyond the post-introduction follow-up and recap of your initial conversation, send regular emails or voice messages just to say hello. Keep in touch when you don’t need anything at all. Continue to offer yourself as a resource and check on the progress of the projects they told you about when you met. And, just as good, send them a referral. “Say ‘hey, I know you’re probably going to need a graphic designer for your project. Here’s someone I think would add so much value,’” Wood suggests. “You’re giving and staying in touch to develop the relationship.”