How do you decide how to spend your networking time when you’re busy and have precious little extra time? When is it worth the travel time to meet live for lunch or coffee? How do you know what LinkedIn or social media invites to accept?
We all have multiple priorities and people competing for our attention. Yet, we also know the value of a strong and supportive network. Networking has helped me pivot into numerous career changes, even when connections seem too unrelated to help (as in my latest adventure into real estate).
If you are thoughtful and proactive about your networking time, you gain access to timely and helpful information, you broaden your knowledge and perspective, and you have fun. However, if you are not judicious about your networking time, you may absentmindedly fritter it away on activities that aren’t fun or helpful to your professional goals.
Here are five guidelines to keep in mind for deciding how to spend your networking time:
Play to your strengths
If you don’t regularly set aside time for networking, ease into it by playing to your strengths and choosing activities that you prefer. If you are a foodie, prioritize having lunch with people, or throw a party to reconnect with multiple people at once. If you like 1:1 meetings but get lost at the big events, skip the conferences for now and schedule individual meetings. If you feel tongue tied connecting with people live, start the outreach on social media.
But expand your comfort zone
Once you get going, expand your comfort zone by inserting some activities that aren’t natural fits. So if you reconnected to a friend via social media, suggest meeting for coffee. If you have done several individual meetings, consider joining a professional association or attending a conference where you can experience large group networking. Now that you have flexed your networking muscles, these additional activities may feel easier than before. There are coping strategies if you think you are too shy for large networking events.
Mix up your approach
Expanding your comfort zone is not just a good way to stretch your skills, but it ensures you mix up your networking approach which is another key guideline in selecting the right networking activities. When you mix up your approach, you meet different people and you interact with people differently. Networking online is incredibly efficient and can be very effective, but there is still a need for face-to-face meetings. Similarly, networking 1:1 is intimate but attending large events allows you to scale your efforts.
Use social media to scale
Scaling your networking efforts is important because networking is about quantity as well as quality. The more people you are connected with, the more likely that there will be someone who is willing and able to help with your issue. Using social media is one way to scale your networking because what you post is read by many. Posting updates about yourself keeps your existing connections updated. Posting insights or sharing articles both positions your profile favorably and gives useful information.to your network. LinkedIn is widely accepted as the professional networking site (versus Facebook for personal), so if time is limited, I would focus on LinkedIn – update your profile, sharing posts and activity, and connecting to people.
Take advantage of structure
If networking isn’t something that’s top of mind or if you feel uncomfortable doing it, don’t rely on your own motivation to keep you going – it won’t be enough. Instead, build in structured networking opportunities by joining a professional association, affinity group at your company, or simply signing up for the newsletters of organizations of interest, so you get pinged on a regular basis with events you can attend. You will not remember to network if it hasn’t been a regular part of your schedule before. You have to build it in with its own momentum and reminders to keep going.
Building a strong and supportive network need not to take a lot of time if you spend your networking time wisely. Use structured programs for built-in prompts, mix your approach among small and large and live and digital, and do what comes naturally, while still forcing yourself sometimes to try new things. Happy connecting!