Networking is the most effective way for college graduates to begin their career, not only to secure that first position after college, but also to start building their professional network. It’s essential that they think of the long term and start establishing relationships that will carry them forward. They’ll want to remember that as a new graduate, they’ve been exposed to the latest research and methods in their field, so they have something to offer the professionals they’ll be networking with.
College grads should not be shy about approaching their own bank of connections such as family and friends, former employers, religious organizations, and advisors and instructors from college and even high school. Grads can build their network through their college alumni association, LinkedIn, Facebook, local networking groups, Chambers of Commerce, and Toastmasters. They can search the Internet or use Meetup to find local networking opportunities. Professional associations in many areas of specialty (Society for Human Resource Management, American Society of Training and Development, AICPA, etc.) typically have chapters around the country.
Most organizations allow guests to attend meetings or mixers at little to no cost. I’ve found that many young people today have over-relied on electronic communication and lack the social skills needed to successfully network face to face. I recommend Susan Roane’s classic, How to Work a Room, which is an invaluable guide to the techniques they’ll need to mingle at such events.
There are some pitfalls networking newbies will want to avoid. The first is seeing an event as an opportunity to distribute as many business cards as possible. It would be wise to take a cue from the Chinese who treat business cards with reverence. They hold their business cards in two hands when presenting them. In a similarly respectful fashion, they make it a point to read a business card they receive before putting it down or away. It’s much more effective to give a business card more selectively, ideally when it’s been requested.
Another common misstep with business cards is to do nothing with them. When I first started my business, I used to collect business cards and then never use them. I went to too many events, gathered too many cards, and neglected to note anything on the card. I didn’t have time to follow up right away, and I’d forget what each person’s story was. I had stacks of business cards on my desk before I finally learned that it was better to attend fewer events and collect fewer cards. This way I could add each one to my database and follow up as appropriate. This approach has been much more effective than the mass marketing approach I began with.
Using this method leads naturally to another critical aspect of building a network: cultivating relationships. When grads start with just a few contacts, it’s easier to follow up and keep in touch with them. They can connect on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other appropriate social media. If the contact has given them any advice, the grad would do well do follow the guidance and then report back to the individual how things went. Ideally they will in turn find a way to be of help to the new contact, such as by sharing an article, a marketing lead, or a relevant event announcement. If the person invites the grad to an event, they should make an effort to attend or at least reply to the invitation. This may seem obvious, but I’ve found that it’s not.
Communication is most effective when it’s personal and specific. Grads shouldn’t be afraid to note details about their new contact so they can easily be specific in their conversations. They can put a reminder on their calendar to follow up re: the contact’s wife’s surgery, the release of his new book, his father’s move to assisted living, etc. Taking the time to comment on the individual’s Facebook posts or LinkedIn announcements also makes a difference.
Networking means relationship building, and that takes time and effort. The good news for recent graduates is that it’s inexpensive and effective and can be lots of fun.