Making the Most of Your Career Connections: How to Make and Maintain Your Network

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Written by Ebony Escalona Reading time: 12 mins

We are repeatedly told about the power of networking, and the phrase ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ springs to mind. To some of us, networking comes naturally, but to others it can fill them with dread. The great thing is, all of us can improve our networking game in a way that doesn’t have to feel difficult and forced. This article explains how both parties can walk away from an interaction feeling glad that they bumped into one another, and provides some tips and tricks to make the most of and maintain your network.

 

THE first question to ask is why do we care so much about networking? Well here are three reasons that massively resonate with me:

  • People buy into people rather than products or services;

  • To succeed in the world we have to be known by people;

  • It is important to dig your well before you are thirsty.

Let’s just be clear here, I am not saying that you need to be famous, far from it. But you will be massively helped throughout your working and personal life by your network. Recent LinkedIn research suggests that 85 per cent of jobs are obtained through networking (Hutchinson 2017), yet many of us rely on a reactive mindset when it comes to our career and personal development; however, by nurturing your network now, you can get rid of that ‘just in time’ mindset.

Networking isn’t all about you though. If you take nothing else away from this article, then think to yourself, ‘How can I be of service or value to others?’ At the end of the day, all humans crave connection and most of us find purpose in supporting others too.

Indeed, there has never been a better time to reframe how we think about networking. Covid-19 has, ironically, breathed fresh air into who and how we connect with one another. So, if networking is up there with your top fears, alongside maybe public speaking or solo surgeries, then this article is for you. You see, great networking is a strategy not to be taken for granted. So let’s supercharge your networking toolbox.

And here’s a quick task that we’ll revisit at the end of the article. How do you read the following hashtag? #Opportunitiesarenowhere. ‘Opportunities are nowhere’, or something else? If the former, read on.

Reframe the fear of networking (and the word!)

If you’re like me, networking used to conjure up uncomfortable feelings of inauthentic people waiting for their turn to speak and try and sell me something.

 But I believe great networking has the power to provide meaningful connections. These connections may be for our career, our personal development, or collaboration opportunities, to name just a few options. When I replace the word ‘networking’ with ‘connection’ I am instantly drawn towards those opportunities, rather than repelled by the idea of them. Just substituting one word can elevate me from having a ‘fixed mindset’ to having a ‘growth mindset’ when it comes to creating connections that count (Dweck 2017). And remember, most people love to help others (especially in the veterinary profession), and these connections can help to open doors and provide a leg up towards things we want to be, do or have.

Here are three quick hacks to reframe the fear surrounding networking:

  • Call networking something else – connections, mingling, hangouts, meet-ups, seeking support. Just find the words that work for you;

  • Ask yourself ‘what can I learn?’, and see networking as a place to discover something or someone new, and not just a chore that you should be doing to progress in your career;

  • Find people and events that have your shared interests when networking – connection is cultivated by shared interests and will feel more authentic when this approach is followed.

 

Who is already available to you?

Think about who you already know. If you are thinking that you know very few people, or no one, then let’s take a moment to touch base with your world. Take a pen and paper and write down three people for every question outlined here:

  • Who do you know at your current workplace?

  • Who are your friends and colleague’ friends?

  • Who do you know in your university alumni networks or from previous jobs?

  • Who are your clients?

  • Who do you know from another department in your organisation if you work in a larger entity?

  • What online communities are you part of and who do you know from these?

  • Who are the delegates that joined you at a recent event, such as the Big Student Careers Fair and the Global Veterinary Careers Summit?

  • What other organisations are you part of, such as the BVA, British Equine Veterinary Association, British Small Animal Veterinary Association and British Veterinary Nursing Association, and who do you know from these?

  • Do you have any contacts from volunteering positions you hold?

Did your circle of connections just get bigger? And don’t forget to include those networks outside of the veterinary field (ie, mountaineering, rugby, or knitting clubs, you name it). I have found incredible support both professionally and personally in my hobby networks and remember, the more time we spend doing the stuff we love outside of work, the more energy, presence and focus we have for our work too.

Think about being a broker or bridge of connections

Here is an exercise for you to try. Grab a pen and paper (or create a spreadsheet) and draw three columns:

  • Column one – write a list of people who have been influential in your career;

  • Column two – write who you met these people through;

  • Column three – write down who you introduced these people to.

You see, we can all be enablers and brokers and exert our influence on others. If we think about networking from this angle, then it begins to change the notion of networking from ‘what can I get’ to ‘what can I give’. Column two is going to show you the bridges and brokers in your career – these are people worth reconnecting with. If you have lots of different people in this column, or if column three is full of people, then you are likely to be a bridge or broker already.

Re-engage with old connections without putting the pressure on

Some ways are better than others when it comes to reaching out to old connections. Here are some email and text templates you can personalise to get you started when reaching out to those already in your network: ‘Hey X, I hope you are well. I would love an update on how Y was for you. Things here have been great since Z. No rush on replying as I know you are busy with Y and doing a great job for Z’. Or you could try: ‘Hey X, I hope you are well. As you are well connected in Y industry, I wondered if you had a connection I could speak to and pick their brains on Z. No rush at all.’

At Vets Stay Go Diversify (VSGD), we are regularly asked to help put people in touch with other members of the community – our mentorship programme can be great for this too (see useful resources).

Making the most of events

Here is a list of key actions and considerations that should be used for in-person and online events:

  • Know why you are attending the event – by getting clarity here you can hone in on your connection requirements and minimise the feeling of being overwhelmed or having the tendency to over-plan;

  • Check out who will be there (both speakers and exhibitors) – think about who you would like to connect with, who interests you and who you can help;

  • Connect with people before the event and before the ‘noise’ sets in, and make sure to include sufficient background context that is significant to them when you reach out;

  • Add updates to your social media status to let others know that you are checking into an event. It is a great way for people to connect with you;

  • Use your consultation skills – many people worry about what to say when you connect with them. If you are genuinely interested in someone else, the conversation will flow. A connection mantra to remember is: ‘Be interested over interesting’. Listen to what lights that person up and arm yourself with some poignant questions that go beyond, ‘So what do you do then?’ Instead, you could ask ‘What brings you joy at the moment?’ Listen to their backstory and use the ‘three Ps of conversation’ to channel positive, personal and pride-evoking moments. People will remember you if you have helped them think about moments that bring them joy;

  • Introduce yourself even if you have met them before – remind them of your name and where you first met. Not everyone is good with names and this helps to break the ice;

  • Good body language and lighting (for online events) – these are the secret ingredients to building rapport and trust. Open up, maintain eye contact, show active listening and, if the event is being held online, make sure your camera is clean and focused on your face and torso to enable hand gestures to be captured. Also, check that your lighting is on your face and that the background isn’t too busy or distracting;

  • Act like the host – if you see people are quiet or not involved in a conversation, reach out and include them as you never know where that connection may lead;

  • Don’t plan too much – a lot of new connections can be made through serendipitous path crossings, from exhibitor halls to online community chats.

Work on a memorable introduction

You will be asked to introduce yourself so get comfortable with showcasing yourself, and be sure to make it memorable. Think about what anecdote or part of your story you could bring to the fore?

Once you’ve decided on that, practice saying it out loud and make sure it fits; just like when you try on new clothes, these words need to make you feel comfortable, approachable and looking sharp!

The article by TED ideas on ‘how to introduce yourself so you’ll be unforgettable (in a good way)’ (see useful resources) can help with this. I have been using a variation of this when I meet with people outside of the veterinary sector, and begin my intro as follows: ‘I’m Ebony and I am on a quest to showcase the people behind healthcare. Vets are my current muse (I also work as one). I love shining spotlights on people’s stories alongside the science to support healthy careers for the ones that care.

There are too many wounded healers who burn out before they have a chance to shine. I am always keen to hear from the people I meet about what brings them joy... we don’t talk enough about that. So, tell me, what brings you joy?’

How to keep making and maintaining connections: fanning the flames and prepping for leverage

It is important to keep the momentum in your network by following up with interesting connections within 48 hours of meeting – you could just send a simple message along the lines of: ‘It was great to meet you! You now have me thinking about X. I hope Y goes well’.

 You should also think of creative ways to stay in touch – social media can be a great tool for this.

  • You could text them if you notice a big life event such as a new job, marriage or promotion, and can keep up to date with their news;

  • You could share events or articles that you think would interest the other person based on the conversations you have had. It will help to broaden their horizon too and I guarantee they will appreciate it;

  • Use voice notes – I often overthink what I am going to write in a text message, so voice notes allow me to bring my authentic self to the fore; this approach is very time efficient too;

  • Keep a Rolodex, or similar/digital system and log your contacts – I struggle to keep all my contacts in my head and so this is a great way to ensure that I nurture and keep up to date with my network. You could have columns for their name, where you met them, their contact info, useful info from your conversations and one for any significant events coming up for them, such as a presentation at a conference. You can then set reminders in your calendar to send them a good luck note.

Summary

All of the tips included in this article will help you to foster responsibility, accountability, discipline, courage and humility. These are all great traits that your future employers, collaborators and partners will thank you for. So, how do you read this hashtag now #Opportunitiesarenowhere?

I hope it is ‘Opportunities are now here’.

References

 DWECK, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your

potential. https://bit.ly/3Glsqh7. Accessed 7 January 2022

HUTCHINSON, S. (2017) Study reveals 85% of jobs filled by

networking. https://bit.ly/3zBNhdl. Accessed 7 January 2022

Useful resources

PONTEFRACT, D. (2016) The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in

Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization. www.danpontefract.com/

books/the-purpose-effect/. Accessed 7 January 2022

 

Stop Networking, Start Connecting – A conversation with

consultant Susan McPherson about revitalizing professional

relationships post-pandemic: https://hbr.org/podcast/2021/07/

stop-networking-start-connecting

 

TED ideas talk on how to introduce yourself: https://ideas.ted.com/

how-to-introduce-yourself-so-youll-be-unforgettable-in-a-good-way/

 

VSGD mentorship programme: www.vsgd.co/mentorship

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