Elevate Your Networking

You can never have too many contacts. Follow these 5 tips to find more.

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Summer is a good time to kick back, grab some beach time and…take stock of your career. If your upward momentum has slowed (or stopped), it might be time to re-energize your networking efforts.

Maybe you’ve relied too heavily on perfunctory social media updates. Or skipped too many meet-and-greets. Consider taking a little of the season’s down time to widen your professional circle. (You never know when you’ll need it!) These top tips from Columbia Business School experts should help.

Treat networking as a skill.

“We all know that networking is an important component of our careers and our social lives, but we often have to put in quite a bit of effort to motivate ourselves to do it,” notes Sheena Iyengar, the S.T. Lee Professor of Business and a Chazen Senior Scholar.

In a series of experiments, she studied the difference between thinking of networking as a personality trait (you’re either intrinsically good at it or not) and thinking of it as a skill (something you have to practice, or train yourself to do). It turned out that the more people believe networking is a skill, the more they’re willing to do it and the more they like doing it.

 “So the next time you’re headed to a networking event, don’t demotivate yourself by saying you’re not a natural-born networker — treat it as a chance to practice!” she advises. “You’ll be happier and do better.”

Get more “authentic networking” tips from Professor Iyengar →

Try “idea networking.”

William Duggan, senior lecturer in business and a Chazen Senior Scholar, is a proponent of something he calls “idea networking.”

First, come up with a question that matches your passion. For example: “Is there private equity in Brazil? And how does it work?” Or: “Are there any areas of print publishing that are growing?”

These “idea questions” are very different from another traditional networking technique: the informational interview. That’s where you ask to speak to someone in a company not about a specific job but about working there more generally. For an informational interview, you might ask, “Do private equity firms in Brazil hire Americans? How are the salary and benefits?” You can see that this kind of question is not at all interesting to the person you ask. And it shows you’re not really interested in the ideas — you’re just looking for a job.

To get started with idea networking, you need only one person to reach out to. Contact that person by email, phone, or in person. Introduce yourself, then ask: Would they mind if you ask for their thoughts on a question you have about the field? If the question is interesting enough, they almost always say yes. They’re flattered you recognize their expertise, and they think you’re smart for asking them.

Discuss the question as long as the person seems interested. At the end, say, “I know you’re very busy, so I don’t want to take up more of your time. Is there anyone you suggest I talk to more about this?” You want three names, but take whatever number you get; it’s almost always at least one.

With each new person you talk to, your question grows more sophisticated, or becomes several questions that you pursue with different people. In fact, once you reach about a dozen people, you are probably more up to date than they are about that specific question. You can say, “That’s interesting. I wonder if you know that (person’s name) is working on (related topic).”

If someone asks why you’re interested in your topic, do not say, “Because I want a job in that field.” Instead, tell them why you find the subject interesting — give specific reasons —and mention that you might want to work in that area at some point, depending on what you discover. You’re pursuing the idea, not a job, although you recognize it might eventually lead to a job.

Learn more about applying idea networking →

Make it face-to-face.

Ask your contact to meet at their office or ask them out for coffee, suggests Juan Gomez Vega ’09, head of capital markets and investor relations at Neinor Homes, a Spanish residential developer. Meeting at the office can give you a sense of whether you’d be a good fit there; meeting in a café can be a good way to develop a rapport.

“In January 2010, I moved to London without a job and began networking; I was drinking about eight coffees a day!” he says. “Within two months I received offers from multiple real estate private equity funds. Prepare thoughtful questions. When you’re there, ask for advice, show your industry knowledge, and demonstrate interest in the person. Don’t ask for a job or hand over your résumé unless asked. A coffee meeting is about building long-term relationships. If it’s going well, ask for introductions to other potential contacts.”

Read more on Vega’s 9 ways to master networking →

Take your time.

If you’re trying to make connections in Asia, you won’t do it over night – or remotely. “Networking is done face-to-face in Asia so that we can get a sense of that person,” notes Natalie Chan, formerly of the INSEAD Career Development Center and now a Human Resources Business Partner with FrieslandCampina in Singapore. “It’s a culture thing. We take things slower. In Asia, it is important to take one’s time to develop the relationship and show how you can add value to the business.”

Learn how to crack Asia’s job market →

Track your progress.

“I like to put everything in an Excel sheet,” says Vega. “Mine contained notes from my coffee meetings, as well as how much time I had devoted each day to networking. Find what works best for you, but the idea is basic: you need to hold yourself accountable. Think of networking as having another job; it is not something you can do in your free time.”

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