Networking Mistakes You Should Avoid Making
Building and maintaining a professional network is a vital aspect of modern business. These are the most important networking mistakes you should avoid making.
As the economy and the job market continue to rapidly evolve, it is a daunting task just to keep up and adapt to the changing climate of the business world. These days, the most successful businesspeople are the self-starters who have large networks of entrepreneurs who help each other get their foot in the door of any number of business opportunities.
The network itself is the most important aspect of this paradigm: rather than relying on yourself to create your own opportunities, your goal should be to establish a network of mutually beneficial professional relationships. While some relationships come naturally, others may require some work to build, and some should be avoided entirely. For your edification, I've compiled a list of the most common networking mistakes you should avoid if you want to know how to rock at networking.
Seeking Quantity Over Quality
Neophyte networkers tend to make myriad mistakes when they go out to try and get their foot in the door somewhere. One of the most common networking mistakes among amateurs and experts alike is to try to make contact with as many people as possible without trying to make a meaningful connection. The typical, but completely inefficient, technique is to talk to everyone you see for thirty seconds, hand them your business card, and move on. I guess the goal is that if you meet enough people, eventually a few of them will give you a call for a job. In my opinion, this technique is nothing but a waste of business cards. A far better use of your time is to work to create meaningful dialogues with every person you meet in an effort to establish effective business relationships. It takes more work, but it is so worth the effort.
Look, I know it's easy to sit here and read or write about going to a big conference and talking yourself up to like-minded individuals, using your effective networking techniques to create professional contacts. But then you actually go to an event, and suddenly you find yourself facing down dozens or hundreds of strangers armed with nothing but a name tag and a stack of business cards. I get it: it can be awkward to just walk right up to someone face to face and build a conversation out of nothing, especially if you haven't really done that before.
Awkwardness is one of those mistakes that everyone experiences differently, and while it's not your fault, it's still up to you to find a way to overcome your awkwardness if you want to network successfully. A good first step is to bring a friend, particularly one with similar business interests (that's a two-person network right there!). Having a partner alongside you for support at these events simply makes it easier to put yourself out there and build your network.
Ignoring Potential Connections
While there are such things as networking events and business conferences, don't fool yourself into thinking you need to be at such an event in order to develop meaningful professional relationships. Ignoring the obvious potential business connections in your own life is one of the most overlooked networking mistakes I have seen. Whether it's old friends from school, your next door neighbor, or the guy you buy your bagel from every morning, you never know who is capable of giving you your next big break. This is not an excuse to cast a wide net and try to include everyone you meet in your network: it is simply a reminder to keep your ear to the ground and not discount a potential contact.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: ask not what your network can do for you, ask what you can do for your network. One of the worst networking mistakes I see is folks who only think about what they can personally gain from other people. This can turn your experience into a networking nightmare. In reality, the whole point of having a network is so you can reciprocate with your own knowledge and connections. You don't have to be a doormat, and you definitely should be seeking out professional contacts that can benefit you and your business, but the key is to meet someone who will benefit from being in your network as much as you will benefit from being in theirs. This mutually beneficial relationship is the cornerstone of good networking.
Falling for Shallow Connections
You've now learned to seek high quality networking contacts over a large quantity of mediocre contacts. Another angle to building a strong network of professional contacts is avoiding the people who haven't taken my advice. There are far too many people out there who treat networking as an entirely self-serving venture, speed walking from one networking event to the next and tossing their business cards like confetti. This description is barely hyperbole, so it's usually easy enough to pick these people out and avoid them. Nine times out of ten, they aren't interested in reciprocating any favors, so it's best to steer clear of them in favor of people interested in developing mutually beneficial networks. They can be the type of connections that will make or break your career.
Your definition of "professionalism" may vary widely depending on your line of work and even where you live, but it is vital to understand exactly what that definition is if you want to avoid making serious networking mistakes. While it is generally encouraged to be on friendly terms with your professional contacts, you can't treat them as colloquially as you do your friends. Broadly put, you must show politeness and respect to everyone you meet when you're networking. This includes everything from being on time to maintaining eye contact or even just keeping your jokes to a minimum (the latter is definitely a struggle of mine). You may loosen the reins a bit once you become closer, but the first impressions you make when you meet someone should be wholly professional.
One of the most important aspects of professionalism is your work attire. Whether the dress code for your line of work involves suits or coveralls or Hawaiian shirts, you can't afford to give the wrong impression when it comes to your workwear. While it may seem trivial, it is a fact of life that can't be avoided. People see you before they speak to you, so not dressing professionally is one of the most important networking mistakes to avoid. In addition to understanding the appropriate attire for your line of work, you must also remain well-groomed and hygienic if you don't want people to avoid you. If you show up to a white collar business conference in a slouchy tee shirt and unkempt hair, it doesn't matter how much of an expert you are because nobody is going to talk to you long enough to find out.
Mismanaging Your Social Media Presence
Social media has made it easier than ever to stay in touch with potential business partners, but it has also introduced a whole new variety of networking pitfalls to navigate. If you'll be connecting with potential networking partners via Facebook or LinkedIn, make sure your pages are free of inappropriate photos, comments, and anything else that might present you in an unflattering light to your professional contacts.
If you don't want to self-censor your personal social media accounts, then you should consider setting them to private. Thankfully, most social media websites make it easy to adjust the privacy settings on your account. In this case, you should also consider creating separate professional accounts on social media with your business email address. This may cause additional headaches, as you'll likely have to deal with casual friends and business acquaintances "friend requesting" the wrong accounts, but it is the best way to keep your professional and personal lives separate.
Opening with a Question
Shallowness is at the heart of most networking mistakes, and this is no exception. Let's say you've studied all the right tips, you've practiced how to dress well and talk to other people face to face. You're in your element and you're comfortable. You arrive at an important conference with ample opportunities to get your foot in the door at some big companies and build your network. But you aren't in the end zone yet. In fact, your opening line can betray all your preparations: if the first thing you do when you meet someone is ask for a favor or a phone number, it immediately raises their suspicions. Once they put their guard up, it might already be too late to resuscitate the possibility of making any sort of positive connection. Long-lasting networking relationships should be built on mutual trust and respect, so make sure you create a rapport before you even think about asking favors.
Failing to Follow Through
Most of my advice has been focused on avoiding networking mistakes at the start of the business relationship. This is by design, as it is much harder to build a professional network than it is to maintain one. That does not, however, mean that your network will survive on inertia alone. Thankfully, the best advice for maintaining a socially profitable network can be summed up two words: following through. As long as you follow through on your promises and carry your fair share of the weight of a network, you will develop a reputation of reliability that will benefit you as an individual as well as keep your network functional and mutually beneficial for everyone in it.