The first step in successful networking is identifying what you want in a connection; relationships take energy and you have to be willing to put in the effort into the connections which will make a difference. Be sure to spend some time and physically write down the goals you for the connection, this will ensure you get results. In most cases, the connections we want are business oriented. We want sales leads, future employers, potential employees, technical ideas, or simply credentials that come from belonging to the “right club”.
The best way to make connections in the modern business world is to have a professional social media presence, i.e. LinkedIn, Ladders, etc. This is a pre-requisite, as anyone you might start to connect with will use these to check you out at some point in the relationship formation process. Notice that this is necessary, but not sufficient alone to establish a strong network. Physical presence is almost always required to start a relationship. You have to go to where the right connections go, talk the talk and walk the walk. You will find that many groups are welcoming to new members, as long as you have shown the initiative to find them. Social and service organizations have traditionally been the best places to meet local business and political leaders. Beware, you may also be meeting nothing but salesmen eager to network with you. Another idea for find groups: look online at places like Meetup.com. These websites are especially useful for connection with specific populations interested in a well-defined topic. If you do not find one convenient to you, then start one in your area!
That is the easy part; you now know where to find and meet contacts who could be good connections and you are ready to start networking. What next? The first step to prepare yourself is to dress appropriately for the group. In some cases, this means: a dark suit, white shirt, power tie and other times it means jeans and a clean t-shirt. Always dress based on what you think the contact would be comfortable wearing themselves. Do not forget to bring a stack of business cards with you; in addition to giving them to a potential connection, they are good notepaper. Bring a pen and an extra one in case someone else needs to borrow yours.
Networking is all about establishing a relationship. The best way to do that is by paying attention to the other person and asking questions that give them the opportunity to speak; basically, show interest in them! At a first meeting, your objective is simply to get to know them. If they have a business card, take it and use it to make notes about them and their situation while they talk. Practice your own short introduction about who you are, make it short and then turn the conversation back to them. After your first meeting, you need to decide whether the person meets the criteria for a good connection. If they pass, then send them a note, and email is fine at this point, expressing your interest in what they were talking about and try to ask a question. The follow up is critical as it cements the start of a network relationship.
The next step in the networking process is to schedule a coffee or a lunch. You should have plenty to talk about due to the email correspondence. By the time the next meeting of your group occurs, you have established at least one contact in your network. Remember to maintain your network with a monthly email and contact at the group event. Follow these steps and you will be a professional at making business connections and expanding your network.