How to Network Your Way to a Successful Career

Meeting new people is one of my favorite pastimes. If I could get paid simply to chat with strangers, I would. It’s not that I love small talk or am on a quest to hear my own voice. It’s that I am genuinely interested in other people’s stories, and intrigued by each person’s unique life experience. Which perhaps explains why I’ve been told more times than I can count, “I can’t believe I just shared that with you. I’ve never told anyone that story before.” I learn a lot by doing, but I also learn a lot by listening.

Professionally, this tendency could be called networking. (It could also be called being that person in the office who distracts everyone else from actually doing work.) But, like it or hate it, building a successful career truly does depend on who you know.

For some people, networking (meeting new people) just comes naturally. But if it doesn’t, learning how to network is easier than it seems. Below are my top three tips to help you on your path to becoming an expert networker (aka “new people meeter”).

How to Network

Networking doesn’t have to be difficult.

1. Quality matters more than quantity.

It’s not about how many people you meet, it’s about making a real connection.

An old acquaintance of mine always used to ask me to come with her to networking events. She was shy and dreaded the thought of approaching someone new, even if she was at an event where that was not just accepted, but expected. If you can relate to that feeling of dread at networking events, chances are you aren’t the only person in the room feeling that way. Look around for other wallflowers, or for someone who appears to have something in common with you, and try striking up a conversation. They’ll probably be relieved you did. If you’re not sure what to say, try leading with a line like, “I really hate these kinds of events.”

Another approach would be to make eye contact with the loudest, friendliest person in the room. They’ll almost definitely approach you as a result. And perhaps they’ll even take you under their wing and drag you around the room making introductions (preventing you from having to do it on your own).

Either way, next time you’re at a networking event (or a casual social event for that matter) focus on making one real connection. There’s no rule that says you have to leave an event with a stack of business cards. And a stack of business cards doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a response to a follow-up email. A real connection, on the other hand, almost always does.

2. Be shameless.

Contact someone you respect and ask if you can pick their brain over coffee (your treat). 

My younger sister is a recent college graduate, and like most recent college graduates she is on a quest to find her dream career. And in the mean time she needs to pay her bills. I encouraged her to unabashedly send emails to anyone who has a career she finds interesting, or works at an organization where she might like to work. Whether your dream is to become a senator, a news anchor or a Fortune 500 CEO, don’t be afraid to track down an email address of someone who has said dream job, and offer to buy them coffee in exchange for the opportunity to pick their brain. If they don’t live in your city, ask if they’d be willing to chat over the phone for 15 minutes. Sure, they might not respond. But it’s also possible that they will. And what you stand to gain is far greater than the risk of rejection.

I regularly receive requests from people I don’t know (of all ages) who are interested in learning how they can start an independent financial planning practice. I always take the time to answer those questions, and am very happy to do so. Over the course of my career I have been fortunate enough to receive guidance and help from so many wonderful professionals, many of whom were strangers I emailed out of the blue. In my experience, most people are willing to share their knowledge, and if you’re lucky they may even help you get your foot in the door.

As for my sister, I helped her draft an email to reach out to a handful of impressive people in her field. So far, she’s had some great leads. She successfully set up a coffee date with someone who just happens to be the director of a program she’s interested in, and that person led her to an awesome job opportunity. Not bad, and she’s just getting started.

3. Sincere flattery works. Every. Single. Time.

Compliments, when sincere, are a powerful tool in forging connections. 

Fake flattery is obvious. And annoying. But a sincere compliment can go a long way toward building a connection with someone. I recently met someone who initially struck me as a bit cocky, but when I heard through the grapevine that he said something nice about me, it definitely influenced my opinion of him.

One thing I’ve learned is that most people–no matter how successful, attractive or powerful they may seem–are insecure. Even though we probably shouldn’t, we care about how people perceive us. If you notice something about someone that you’re impressed by, why hold back? You have absolutely nothing to lose by saying something nice. And who knows, you might just make their day.

If it isn’t really your thing, the art of giving compliments can be learned over time. For starters, when meeting new people try this: shake their hand, make eye contact, smile, repeat their name (“So nice to meet you, Jeff.”), and if possible, compliment them on something you like (“I really like that shirt.”). Again, flake flattery doesn’t work, so only give compliments when you mean it. But there’s nothing wrong with complimenting on purpose. If it feels awkward, just keep doing it until it becomes less awkward. Side note: celebrity look-alike compliments are always a hit.

Extra Credit: Use social networking to your benefit.

It may sound obvious, but social networking is a remarkable way to connect with like-minded professionals. Sites like Twitter and Pinterest allow you to target the types of people you are interested in connecting with, rather than showing up at a networking event and hoping for the best. The same rules from above apply online as well. That is, unless you are trying to add someone you don’t know on LinkedIn without sending a personalized email. I hate when people do that.

Happy networking!