If you wait to build your network until you urgently need the connections, you’ll have waited too long.
In this age of layoffs, I know a lot of people who are kicking themselves for not starting networking sooner. No shame intended here—we all make tough decisions about how to spend our finite time, and lots of things should take precedence over networking. However, if you can find an hour or so to spare each week, it’s well worth using it to forge new professional connections that can benefit you in a myriad of ways over time.
Why Build Your Professional Network?
Having a large network can bring a whole plethora of benefits, including job opportunities, access to a wide range of knowledge, status and visibility, support, and (if done right) a diversity of perspective that can help you build empathy, enhance creativity and critical thinking, and broaden your horizons. Your network doesn’t even need to be a close network. In the 1970s, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter introduced the “weak tie theory” demonstrating just how impactful our loose associations can be. The theory stands strong to this day, with more recent studies showing, for example, that a person’s weakest ties are the most helpful in career development.
Networking can also help you build confidence, hone your communication skills, sharpen your stories, and—not to sound silly, but—practice talking to other people (hey, we all know how awkward it can be!). Perhaps most importantly, networking can actually be fun. It's fascinating to hear other people's stories! And it provides an opportunity to help other people, a prosocial behavior that has all kinds of mood-boosting benefits of its own. The best part is that these days you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your home and sweatpants to do it—it’s easier than ever to make professional contacts online.
LinkedIn was founded in 2002 and has since reached nearly a billion users around the globe in almost every function and industry imaginable. While it can take some work to wade through the crowd to find the right people, LinkedIn remains one of the best channels for growing your network online. Personally, I’ve met some incredible people on LinkedIn—people who have since become friends, some I call “spiritual doppelgangers,” others who have provided great leads for work, a few mentors and mentees, many people I’ve learned from, and a whole bunch I’ve met only briefly but feel confident we may be able to help each other out in the future.
Taking a thoughtful approach to how you build your professional network can impact how successful you are. So, let’s talk about how to find people, how to reach out, what to do when you meet, and what to do afterward.
How to Find People
How exactly does one parse through the one billion people to find folks you might want to talk to? Here are a few tactics I’ve found helpful:
Post stuff you want to talk about. This is kind of a no-brainer, but I’ll say it anyway. Put things out into the world that you’d like to connect on. Building a habit of posting on LinkedIn is a whole other topic for a whole other article, but know that if you post consistently, the conversations will come.
Engage with your feed. Follow people and companies who are talking about topics that interest you. React to their posts and leave comments. Many of my conversations have started out this way. As a creator, you get to know your commenters and start wanting to know more about them. As a consumer, observe who your connections are engaging with and follow those people. Chat with and reach out to other commenters—you’re following the same person, clearly you have something in common.
Search! Make it a point to find and reach out to three people each week through the search function. Use this as an opportunity to diversify your network (something I consider so important that I highlighted it as a goal to pursue for the new year). Sure, search for people in your industry or function, but search along other lines, as well. And, whatever your search terms, look for people who you might not have been expecting to find. For example, search for people who live near you and look for folks who work in relevant, but different fields and roles. Search for people who went to the same school as you, but went on to very different career paths.
Scan the “People You May Know” suggestions. This built-in feature basically does the searching for you...so take advantage of it. Just be aware that the algorithm is connecting you to people who are similar to you in some capacity, and make an effort to look for people who are also different from you.
Ask for recommendations. Ask your current connections to suggest someone who might be interesting to talk to. Provide criteria that you’re looking for in a connection, or leave it up to their good judgment. Offer to do the same in return. I've met and introduced many great connections this way.
Now that you’ve found people, it’s time to reach out.
How to Contact People
Taking the time to tailor your outreach—whether that be in a message or a connection request—can make the difference between getting a response and hearing crickets. If you are hoping to actually chat or meet with someone, please for the love of all that is good don’t just send a connection request with no note. Why should this person connect with you? Don’t expect them to read your mind. Instead, consider the following:
Start with a hook. Catch their attention from the get-go. Why should they keep reading? This opener could be based on any of the points below, or something else entirely. Get creative. But be aware that some gimmicks or jokes can just be annoying. My preference is to approach and be approached with authenticity.
Explain why you’re hoping to connect. Everyone’s tired of getting sold something on LinkedIn and being sent AI-generated messages that are straight up wrong and irrelevant, so include a message about why you want to connect. Make it clear that you are not trying to sell anything. Maybe your reason is as simple as wanting to expand your network...that works! I’ve also said things like, “I’m looking to follow and learn from more women in Chief Learning Officer positions and your profile caught my eye.”
Find a point of connection. Review their profile and find something that resonates or that you have in common. This could be a shared connection, a former employer or position, a skill or volunteer experience, something they wrote in their About section, something someone else wrote in a recommendation, or something tied to recent news or activities of their company. Try not to rest on the obvious with things like, “I see you went to Princeton…so did I!” Try digging deeper. “I see you were an astrophysics major at Princeton…did you ever get to take a class with Neil deGrasse Tyson while he was there?”
Introduce yourself. Don’t expect them to go to your profile and scroll through all the details to figure out who you are. Briefly summarize what you want them to know about you, or what might be interesting to them. For example, “I’m a learning designer by trade, a generalist at heart, and am currently working to build a company in the professional development space.”
End with an ask. Make it clear what you are asking for. Do you simply want to connect? Are you hoping to chat on Zoom? It’s a free country, but my suggestion to you is: don’t just drop your Calendly link and ask the person to book time with you. If you are the one reaching out and asking for something, be willing to do the work to make it happen. Bonus points for including an ask that is more about how you can help the other person than what you stand to benefit.
Make your outreach personalized and concise. Do the work and you’ll be more likely to get responses. Once you’ve gotten a response and maybe even scheduled time to Zoom, it’s time to plan for the conversation itself.
What to do in Networking Meetings
Just like first dates, networking meetings can be awkward—you don’t know each other, you’re on Zoom, and all you have to go on is a few posts and profile fields. I’ve found a few key tactics can go a long way to making almost any meeting fun, fruitful, and relatively low stress:
The basics. Show up on time. If at all possible, be in a place where you can have your camera on and the internet is stable. Be in a place where you’re not distracted by your surroundings and you’re not being overwhelmed by background noise.
Don’t skip the small talk. If you know me, you know I hate small talk. But it can really help you ease into a conversation and relax. Keep it upbeat and energetic and let their mirror neurons kick in. A common point of conversation is getting to know where you’re both located in the world. There might also be a current event to tap into (e.g. “Hey are you dealing with these snow squalls as well???”). Or something notable in their background to comment on (e.g., “Wow, you really have a green thumb, I love all of your plants!”). You can also trace your connections (e.g., “I see we’re both connected to so-and-so, how do you know her?”) or start with something fun from their profile (e.g., “I want to learn more about you, but I noticed you are a dog parent and so first I need to hear more about your dog…”). Check out these 50 small talk topics from Indeed.
Be clear about the agenda (or lack thereof). When you’re first meeting someone, the vibe can easily feel like “what exactly are we doing here?” Get this out of the way by addressing it head on. That could be as simple as saying something like, “Hey I don’t really have an agenda here, I was just really fascinated by your profile and would love to learn more about your career path if you’re willing to share.” Or “It looks like we both have a lot of experience in the ed tech space. Would love to hear about your journey and see if there’s any way we might be able to help each other out.”
Prepare a list of questions or topics. The silences between topics can be scary, so we spend a lot of energy trying to avoid them. But sometimes we’re so worried about what to say next that it completely obliterates our ability to actually listen and have a meaningful conversation. There’s a relatively easy way to avoid this: come prepared with a list of questions and topics to fall back on if you need it. These might be go-to generic questions suitable for any conversation partner (e.g., “I’d love to hear more about your career path…” or “what’s something that’s inspiring/challenging you these days?”) or questions tailored to the person you are meeting based on a review of their LinkedIn profile (e.g., “I saw you spent a year in Kenya in the Peace Corps, how was that?” or “I see you got your MBA, that’s awesome, would you recommend the experience for someone else considering getting one today?”). Just knowing that they are there for you if you need them can help make you feel more at ease.
Listen actively. To the point of the bullet above, don’t just sit there waiting for it to be your turn to talk. Actively listen to what the other person is saying and dig deeper with follow up questions. Be curious about who they are and what their life experiences have been. Try not to always respond with your own parallel story about yourself (some connection building in this manner is OK, but having your standard response be to talk about yourself is too much). And remember that this is a conversation and not an interview or a monologue. Avoid monopolizing the airspace with your own stories and balance asking questions with sharing information about yourself (no one likes a one-sided interrogation).
Close smoothly. Watch the clock on your conversation and don’t let the time run out without noticing. Many people have back-to-back meetings and running even a couple minutes over can be an inconvenience, leaving a bad impression in the home stretch. Have a couple of closers in your pocket to choose from. I find it relatively easy to say something like, “Hey, listen, I see we’re running up on the hour here and I want to be respectful of your time. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, and if ever I can do anything to support you in any way, please do let me know.” You can also recap any action items that were mentioned (e.g., “I’ll introduce you to the friend I mentioned later this evening, watch out for a group LinkedIn message”) or pose a question, if there is time (e.g., “Is there anything I can do to support you right now?” or “What kinds of people are you most interested in meeting right now? I’d be happy to connect you with folks in my network if I know anyone relevant.”).
Thirty minutes passes quicker than you think. Armed with the tips above, your networking conversations should be relatively painless, if not actually enjoyable!
How to Follow-up
Following up on your conversation is a nice touch and a great way to keep track of the details. It may not always be necessary, but sending a quick note to thank the person for their time can go a long way. You might even follow-up with an additional comment about something you talked about (e.g., “I was thinking about what you said about needing to expand your reach…have you thought about reaching out to various professional associations?”) or a recommendation of someone you think they should connect with.
If nothing else, try jotting a couple notes about your conversation in a document, your phone, or some other place to stash info. If you start networking a lot, it can start to be hard to remember what you talked about with whom. Keeping track can come in handy later when you are trying to remember who said what. Additionally, keeping track of personal details like where people live, their family names, or pets can be great little nuggets to bring up in later conversations to demonstrate that you were actually listening to what they had to say and that you care about them as a human.
There’s an apocryphal stat out there on the internet that says 85% of jobs are filled through networking. Some people refute it, but regardless of what percentage it really is, it’s indisputable that networking can pay off in big ways. Whether it lands you a job or not, it sure can introduce you to some incredible people that you would never have met otherwise.
To reap the full benefits of networking, it's really important to make it an ongoing activity and not just something you start doing when you need it. It can take a while to build momentum and for the effort to really pay off, so if you're just getting started after being laid off, you may need to give it a minute for your activities to start bearing fruit.
With that in mind, no matter where you are on your professional journey today, consider building an ongoing habit of connecting with new people on LinkedIn. It will help you learn and grow personally and professionally, and I’ve met very few people who regret it.