I have a confession: even though my role as a career coach has me talking frequently about the importance of networking, I do not love large networking events. You know the ones where you walk into a loud happy hour and have the urge to walk right back out?
I have, in fact, walked into one of these events, turned right back around, and took a walk around the block. During that short walk, I got into a different headspace so I could meet new people. Then I went back into the event, which ended up being one of the most enjoyable I have attended.
There is no doubt that it is important to develop a network, but there are more ways than just attending happy hours to expand your professional circle.
Say Yes to Informational Interviews
A few years ago, I saw networking described as a combination of curiosity and generosity. This is an ideal way to think of an informational interview. Whether you are connecting with someone over a cup of coffee, a phone call, or at their office, the first step is figuring out who you want to meet with and why.
Who is in your network (and in your network’s network)? Find out who works in the issue area of interest to you. Is there someone who already has your ideal role, or who might have a connection at the organization that you’re eyeing?
Once you have reached out and set up a meeting, you’ll want to prepare. Even though you are not going on a formal job interview, put your best professional self forward.
Be curious. Ask questions to learn more about the person:
- What is important to them? What are their interests, passions, or hobbies?
- How did they get to their position?
- What was their career path?
- Do they have any advice?
- Is there something they wish they knew when they were in your shoes?
Remember to always write a thank you note to let them know you appreciate their time.
Say Yes to Being a Resource, Too
Similarly, when someone asks you to share your experiences, say yes. Whether someone asks you about your profession, organization, school, or volunteering, share the stories of your successes and things you wish you knew before you started.
Be generous. Think about what you can offer:
- Articles or events that might be of interest.
- Connections to people, employers, or organizations.
- Skills that might be of use to the person you’re talking to.
Say Yes to Professional Associations
There are many professional associations in the nonprofit and social impact space. Many are locally based, some are national, and many have regional chapters. If you’re a student, take advantage of student membership rates.
There are a number of ways to get involved in a professional association:
- Attend events: Many are focused on a specific topic so not only will you learn something, you are likely to share some interests with the other attendees.
- Volunteer to sit on a committee: Professional associations rely on active members to help. Attending committee meetings will provide you with an opportunity to meet others while building skills.
- Get involved in a mentor program (some organizations have them): You can get paired up with experienced members who are looking to share their knowledge with new professionals.
Say Yes to Reconnecting with Past Colleagues and Clients
Some of the best people in your network are your past colleagues and clients, yet many people overlook them once they are no longer working in the same office.
- Stay in touch: Take the initiative to get a group of old colleagues together a few times a year.
- Work on projects together: Identify opportunities to collaborate by presenting at conferences or hosting webinars together.
- Share best practices with each other: Talk about trends, policy changes, and organizations that are in the news.
Even if you say yes to all of these ways to expand your professional network, you still need to know how introduce yourself to a stranger at a large event. Be prepared for the first question that most people will ask when they meet you: tell me about yourself. You never know when you’ll need the skill and for what. From there, you’ll be on your way to better and more meaningful connections!
About the author: Surabhi Lal, Career Services Director at NYU Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service has guided hundreds of new and experienced professionals on their journeys to meaningful careers. Along the way, she translates the unwritten rules of a job search to be more transparent. As a coach and a manager she strives to bring out the best in individuals and teams. She knows that career decisions impact many facets of one’s life and reflects often on the intersection of values, identity, and career. Views are her own.