In college, I dreaded networking the most, not because I didn’t have brilliant questions to ask, but because I felt I as a student could not provide anything in return while I usually asked for something – information, a job referral, a contact, etc. To me, the scale was out of balance. As a result, the notion of being indebted haunted me and impaired my confidence at the meetings.
It was not until I was approached by students to set up networking meetings that I realized I was not as resourceless as I thought I was in college. When thinking “Oh, I wish student A would have done this when we spoke last week”, I also learned to see “I really could have helped Alumna B when I met with her for an informational interview a few years ago”. After many rounds of reflection, I discovered the networking meeting could be an equal information exchange rather than one-way street. I could wear both hats – to find out answers to my networking requests (“the taker”) and to understand the other person’s aspirations and offer to help (“the giver”). Had I been back in college again, I would not have let the limited experience of my college-self impact me negatively. There are many ways to return the favor and stay in touch in the long term, such as giving feedback, sending relevant information in their areas of interests, introducing contacts, etc.
I did not recognize how powerful giving feedback is until I started blogging and have been in dire need of suggestions to improve my blog. I want to know if I have articulated my ideas, what topics my target audience would be interested in, etc. Thus, I reached out to a mentee of mine and asked her for a list of topics she is curious about. Thanks to her recommended list, I have written “Networking Hack #1” on how to conduct information interviews and this article on how to leave a long-lasting impression and stay in touch. Similarly, anyone could do the same for his/her networking contact by offering constructive feedback. When attending a company-sponsored networking event, you could connect with the recruiters and provide thoughts on what you enjoy and what else to include to make it even better. Comments and suggestions are in high demand but hard to get since we often delete event survey emails without participating. If you offer what the recruiters care about without them even asking in the first place, you will definitely stand out. What’s more, you get to connect with them on a personal level rather than being just a name among the survey results. Another example is if your mentor works in an industry you are familiar with, such as Target or General Mills, you could offer personal insights on certain products experience. I am sure you will have a fun idea exchange!
Apart from contributing personal ideas, another way is to share resources in the field that your contact is interested in. Resources could range from book recommendations and news articles, to contacts to introduce them to and professional development event information. I found out recently that one of my contacts was moving to Chicago.As someone who have been through moving to a completely new city not knowing anyone, I offered to introduce him to friends I know in the area. Someone who I find very inspiring has opened two women’s wear boutique shops in Minnesota. Since I have been quite a shopper myself, I sent her articles on the retail/fashion industry. I also shared her store information on Facebook, hoping to drive more store traffic. I am a firm believer that as long as I am thoughtful, whether the information could be of help or not, my contacts will appreciate the effort I put in. More importantly, I feel happier when I could do something for others.
To stay in touch in the long term, you could follow up periodically and give a status update. When others invest in you by volunteering time to meet with you, introducing their contacts, and forwarding your resume, etc, they would love to know what happens to you in the end. I did not empathize that feeling until I start mentoring students. I would wonder “what happened to Student A’s interview?”, “Did Student B meet my coworker and find it helpful?”, etc. Sending a brief email update is always a nice way to reconnect and gives another opportunity to keep you on your contact’s mind.
No matter what you do, it takes genuine interest to understand what your contacts care about and a well-informed mind to be resourceful. From checking your contact’s Linkedin profile and asking questions at the meetings, you will notice things that matter to them, such as the industries they are in, professional goals, college affiliation, personal hobbies, etc. To discover the relevant resources, you could stay in the know by not only following the news, but also turning to the Linkedin Newsfeed. I was able to find a networking event through Linkedin that one of my contacts might be interested in attending. If you are at a loss of how to help, you could always try “what can I do to help you”. Someone asked me this question before and I was able to ask for a favor.
When you initiate to help your networking contacts, you will strike them as thoughtful and having their interests in mind, instead of being all about “What I want…” If you share similar feelings as I once had in college, why not try these suggestions of giving feedback, providing relevant information, and sending periodic update emails. I hope my tips will help you generate more ideas. When in doubt, always think in your networking contact’s shoe and ask yourself “if I was him/her, how would I like to be treated?”
I would love to hear from you! Your thoughts are always welcome! You could leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.