Many think that networking is something you do a couple weeks before looking for a job or they assume it’ll just be a 2-hour “networking event” where they hand out cards and hope someone calls them back. It’s actually a lot more subtle than that. Many “gurus” claim that this one trick can help you land the internship/job of your dreams or that cold emailing people will get you the results you want. As someone who actually managed to successfully leverage my network, I can say that’s a bunch of BS. Below are some networking practices I’ve found that actually work.
Learn how to sell yourself. One of my professors in college who eventually wrote me a rare letter of recommendation once said, “1/3 of people will like you, 1/3 of people will hate you, and 1/3 of people won’t care about you.” In essence, you cannot please everyone. Develop a pitch about yourself when you run into people at the coffee shop, the tennis courts, the gym, etc. You never know who you’ll meet. My go-to is my [job/student status] + [my future plans]. Laying out your future plans like that tells the person exactly how/if they can help you and how/if you can be of use to their network.
Treat it as a lifestyle. Networking is a lifestyle just as much as fitness is. Be competent and fair in the workplace. Treat others with kindness even if they report to you or are “below” you. Show your superiors your competence and ability to meet goals within realistic timeframes. Kissing ass is easy, but keeping up good opinions about you and your work is much more difficult. Most importantly, it will take time for you to be able to leverage or use your network, and sometimes, you might not need them at all and they might need you. You don’t have to be good friends with everyone or even keep constant contact with them. The important thing is that they leave interactions with you on good spirits.
Exposure effect. This is a psychological phenomenon where we like people we are familiar with a lot better than unfamiliar people. Even if that person doesn’t know your name or can’t quite place where they saw you before, they are more likely to have good feelings towards you if they have been exposed to your likeness compared to complete strangers. This will sound very stalker-ish, but hear me out. If you see a person you want to work with/for walking down the hallway, go the same way and just pass them and give a polite nod or wave. Put yourself in positions where they will be present and will see you. If you don’t interact at all, that’s fine as long as they are exposed to your likeness. It’s kind of creepy, but it does work.
Be genuine. No one likes a faker. Stay true to yourself while being professional. If you are a student, professors may give you some leeway on professionalism, but not much. I remember getting a C+ in a class where I got B+ average in tests. I was following this philosophy of “The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck” and refused to participate in the group presentation which was worth 10% of my grade. I simply did not give a f*ck about it, and acted accordingly. After seeing my grades, my professor asked me why I didn’t participate, and I gave him my honest answer: I didn’t give a f*ck (in a more professional way, of course). I then got a 30-minute lesson on not following self-help books to a tee. The cutoff grade for letters of recommendation in that class was an A, but somehow, the professor decided to write me one. It could have been a combination of things, but I always credited that to my refreshing honesty and willingness to learn from a mistake.
Reach out with no agenda. Most professionals are used to people only reaching out for favors and honestly, it gets tiring and leaves us feeling used. The occasional “How are you?” emails with no agenda whatsoever are so refreshing and really elevates my opinion of people. There’s nothing more that peeves me than people who only reach out when they need something. Think about the people that have helped you on the way to where you are now. Send them an email at least once a year asking about how they are and update them on your progress and important life events. It’ll make their day and will strengthen the network you have built for yourself.
The attractiveness privilege. It’s just a common thing that we like prettier people better than non-good looking people based on first impressions. It’s way easier to get people to like you when they are already predisposed to like you and you don’t have to overcome hurdles put in place by your appearance. For the average person, you don’t need plastic surgery to be attractive, but a set of well-fitting clothes, lightly styled hair, good skincare, and neutral makeup will show people that you are a person that puts in effort.
In my experience, there are many professionals with great work-related skills but fall short in the people department. By knowing how to network and having the courage to leverage your network, you are allowing others to benefit from your skills and labor. People are not machines and our decisions are shaped by interpersonal interactions and past experiences. By optimizing people’s experiences with you, you are not only providing good company, but also allowing them to be part of your supportive network.