The Art of Networking


Most everyone agrees that we ought to network, but we rarely reflect on how to do it most efficiently and with the most rewarding results. Is there a certain formula for successful networking? A certain type of event we must attend or a certain kind of person we should engage? A certain number of business cards we should collect?

Furthermore, we seldom stop to consider the question of what networking is, anyway. All professionals use the term, but the meanings they ascribe to it vary. Is networking only about going to events? Or does it have other facets as well? Conducting an informational interview? Talking to a stranger on an airplane or subway? Chatting with the friend of a friend at a happy hour? Networking could be any or all of these things. It should not be confined to only one of them.

A useful definition of networking is building a circle of acquaintances—colleagues you admire who know and respect your work and who are willing to help you in a variety of ways. Similarly, you respect them, admire their work ethic, and are willing to be of help. The emphasis must be on quality, not quantity. You may have many connections on LinkedIn, but how many will use their precious time to do you a favor?

For Sherry, going to networking events and putting yourself in contact with potential employers or other people knowledgeable about the fields of international education, exchange, and development is invaluable. Yet she also advises professionals to avoid viewing these structured events as the only times when they need to be "on." Rather, for Sherry, you are always networking or "forever at the crossroads." You are constantly being judged as a professional, and you never know when a seemingly innocuous situation may help you—or haunt you—in the future.

Mark is less comfortable than Sherry with the idea of attending a multitude of networking events. He explores the question of how a professional might effectively network if he or she is uncomfortable with approaching new people or plunging into a noisy crowd at an event. Although he does not advocate abandoning events altogether, Mark suggests being strategic about the events you choose to attend. Much like Sherry, however, Mark sees networking as more than just attending events or gathering as many business cards as possible. He believes that every day, "in your own skin," you are networking. He recognizes that you cannot ignore the value of building relationships or getting to know people, even if the professional value of a specific relationship is not immediately clear.

Sherry: Encountering Potential Employers and References

There is no substitute for putting yourself in the company of potential employers or other individuals knowledgeable about employment opportunities in your field. A productive way to do this is to join the professional associations most related to the cause you have identified. I joined the International Studies Association (ISA) as a graduate student and have remained a member in the intervening decades. My ISA membership and participation in national conferences (where I sometimes present papers) enable me to keep in touch with a wide array of respected colleagues and to better understand the evolving context in which I work. (Consult chapter 6 for an annotated list of major professional associations and the benefits and costs of membership.)

You also can attend conferences, lectures, and other program events related to your areas of interest. Sometimes you can convince organizations to waive registration fees at conferences or other professional development activities by volunteering your services. Participation in such events will enable you to gain vital knowledge about the field that is the focus of the sponsoring organization. You will learn more about the history of the field and key issues currently commanding the attention of its leaders, and, in some cases, you may acquire skills pertinent to your career in training seminars. You will develop a strong sense of the major players and the array of organizations offering employment. Those events provide useful opportunities to raise questions and to demonstrate to colleagues your own grasp of various issues.

I always encourage colleagues to have a first question ready at the beginning of the question-and-answer periods that are often part of such events. Be sure to identify yourself and then ask a carefully phrased, succinct question that enables a speaker to elaborate on a concept presented. It is a chance to demonstrate that you were paying attention, want to learn more, and are articulate. It also is an opportunity to help the organizers keep the event moving—and organizers will notice that you have contributed in that way. On the other hand, I also caution colleagues not to display insensitivity to others who have questions by dominating the discussion or monopolizing a speaker's time when he or she is answering individual questions during or after the formal part of an event. Questions are a way to demonstrate your consideration for others, not only a way to illustrate your interest in the subject matter.

Once you have determined that the mission of a particular organization and your cause are congruent, you will want to participate in that organization's activities and programs. Again, most organizations look for volunteers to help. Once the leaders of an organization know you embrace their mission and are a competent and diligent worker, you will have a distinct advantage when a job opening does occur. It is no mystery why many of the people I hired at the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV) were former interns, including Mark. We knew the quality of their work. They were familiar with our membership, technology, and office culture. Therefore, they required less training than someone completely new to the organization. They were known quantities. Hiring them was less risky for the organization. Hiring the wrong person is expensive—in terms of time, energy, and dollars. Managers are always looking for ways to minimize that risk. That is why direct experience with a potential hire or the unqualified recommendation of a trusted colleague is a remarkable advantage. In sum, networking is getting to know potential employers and potential references.

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