Answer: For some people, networking is almost as important as breathing. The more events they attend and the more people they meet, the happier they are. For others, it's as painful as pulling toenails.
Networking needn't be painful, and it's something that builds on itself. People want to be helpful, and once you start making contacts, relationships can grow exponentially.
The first thing to realize is that networking is simply seeking and sharing information with others. By making this one of your goals, your boss is saying you'll be a more effective employee if you connect with more people.
That's because business functions through personal connections. Whether it's filling a job opening or finding a vendor, people tend to call people they know to ask if they're interested in the opportunity or for a referral.
"Meeting people and building relationships is the key to being successful in any business, no matter what the industry is," says M. Todd Dean, an angel investor in Seattle and president of the Northwest Chapter of Keiretsu Forum, an angel investor network. "Business is all based on relationships."
Begin by asking your manager for suggestions on where to start, says Eric Herzog, vice president of marketing for Asempra Technologies, a storage software company in Sunnyvale, Calif. Does he want you to meet more people inside or outside your company or both? "He may give you some hints on where to go to get the ball started," says Mr. Herzog.
If it's within your company, find ways to talk with other employees about your role and offer assistance on their projects, says Steve McAllister, director of sales development for the Industry Solutions Group of software maker Autodesk Inc. in San Rafael, Calif. "You need to be viewed as someone who adds value and you do that by networking and letting people know what you do," says Mr. McAllister.
Ask people you already know for introductions to their contacts. Take part in company sports events or volunteer activities. These are no-pressure ways to meet other professionals. Later, you can follow up with them and ask for introductions to the people they know.
Chatting with vendors, suppliers, alliance partners, consultants and professionals in your industry or function allows you to tap into the external business grapevine, offer assistance and learn about new business opportunities.
As a networker, focus on being helpful to others. Start asking people to call you if they need something and be ready to assist. Try to make deposits in a "favor bank" that you may be able to withdraw from at some point, but not necessarily from the people you helped. "The more you give people, the better it works," says Mr. Herzog. "When I give something to somebody, I know I can call them for something in return, but it isn't always quid pro quo."
Networking experts suggest joining professional groups and attending their meetings. But it's hard for some people, myself included, to form connections with strangers at professional gatherings. Here are some ways to reduce networking awkwardness:
- Volunteer for a committee or other job. Meeting and talking with others is easier when you have a role to play.
- Prepare four or five questions or comments that you can use to break the ice with people. Follow up with questions based on the answers you get. Eventually, you'll find something in common with the other person that you can use to form a relationship.
- Use the Internet as much as possible to make connections. Business-networking groups such as LinkedIn.com, exist solely to connect people. Anyone I've contacted through such a group has been pleased to assist me. And, by emailing people, you can form a connection without face-to-face rejection or embarrassment.
- Always follow up. If you take a business card, be sure to call, email or send a written note saying you enjoyed meeting the person and would like to talk more. Mr. Dean says most people he meets don't become part of his network because they never follow up afterward.
- Make friends with people who are networking geniuses. They will connect you with the people in their networks. Such referrals will immediately break the ice for you and save time and trouble.
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