The internet is awash with a flurry of articles, seminars, and books about career success targeted at millennials. We’re the “hopeless generation” that inherited a screwed up world full of selfish baby boomers, grossly inflated tuition, and a terrible job market (which actually isn’t relatively terrible as I have previously argued).
Most of these books promote industry buzzwords like “networking”, “connecting”, or “self-branding”. These are all very important things, but the vast majority of these books and articles approach these techniques from a very shallow angle. The authors or other “career development experts” all say the same thing: get out there, network, promote yourself and your brand, and you will be winning at all the sports. Aside from the cult-like use of the word “networking”, these experts never really offer solid advice on the hows, but simply the whats, the wheres, or the whys of networking and building valuable relationships with industry professionals.
We all know the saying: “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. That saying gets tossed around as soon as you start thinking about your career as a student. Unfortunately, what this saying and the general mantra behind networking is lacking is the how to get to know people. If I asked this question to a room full of people, most would answer with: “Go to a networking event, carry business cards, etc…” Wrong. That answer addresses the where to meet people, and honestly, networking events are a terrible place to meet people. That’s like saying that the best place to pick up a girl is at a bar. It’s not.
At a networking event, you have two kinds of people: value seekers and value providers. Most millennials are written to and treated as if they are a value seeker. You’re low on the totem pole and you want to seek out the right people who will help advance your career. The value providers are those executives and other well-connected higher ups that can make that happen for you. In essence, they’re the hot girl at the bar. When you go up and introduce yourself with a fake smile and over jubilant handshake, you create the same effect of annoyance that hot girls feel every time they go out. High value providers enjoy the ego stroking, but they’re out there looking for value as well, and 99% of the population isn’t going to provide them with it because they’re approaching things from the wrong angle. The goal of proper networking is hack the interaction so that you become mutual value providers for each other.
The industry standard advice for a networking event is to show up, look professional, and have business cards ready to hand out. Everyone and their mother does this, and it’s boring, predictable, and unlikely to get you solid returns on your interactions. If you really want to maximize your networking success, don’t attend networking events. It’s the same reason that you don’t go to the bar to meet your next long term partner; it’s an environment that attracts people who are looking for a quick solution, not quality interactions. I will get into what to do instead of attending networking events later on, but I do realize that some success does come from networking events.
Here’s how to stand out and do it right:
Creating quality interactions in a short amount of time is difficult, and it’s the reason most men fail at picking up women. The same can be said for failing to “pick up” a high-ranking executive; it’s essentially the same type of interaction. You want something from them (whether it be sex or a job), but they aren’t sure if you’re worth giving that up to. In order for your interactions to be successful at a networking event, you need to convince the people you’re interacting with that you’re worth their time.
1) Dress the part: elevate yourself above your competition and get a tailored suit, a good pair of shoes, and make sure everything goes well together. You don’t have to walk in with a lapel flower and a bespoke double breasted suit, but you should aim to be better dressed than 90% of the people there, both value providers and value seekers. It shows you know how to play the game and that you’re committed to reaching the top. In most client-facing careers, appearance is heavily weighted, and since many of these positions are quite lucrative and sought after, you might as well go the extra mile and invest in looking your best.
2) Have something interesting to talk about.
This is where reading things other than Buzzfeed or the Chive come in handy. If you are well versed in numerous theories or ideas in psychology, sociology, or other easily applicable and explainable subjects, you’ll be well-equipped to carry a conversation and introduce some cool new ideas to high level executives that they may not know already. Whatever you talk about, have an opinion and stand by it.
Avoid talking about business: no one cares what entry level stuff you can regurgitate to try and pretend you know what you’re talking about. These are heavy hitters with decades of industry experience. They wrote the books you had to memorize, so don’t patronize them by trying to sound like you know how the business world works.
Additionally, these people have been at the top of their game for quite some time. Do you really think that after all their years of work, they want to spend an entire evening in an echo chamber? Booooring. Strike up a conversation about their passions. Try to align yourself with what they enjoy and develop a deeper connection that way. Don’t blabber on about how great the company is or how smart and wise they are.
It’s the same reason why you never tell a hot girl that she’s hot. She knows that already, and the executives know that they’re a big deal and that their company is great. When you’re speaking with an executive, dig a little deeper and show you actually care about what they think and what they enjoy. The best friendships and relationships are founded on passion, so find out what theirs are and build from there.
3) Don’t be a kiss ass.
At networking events, value providers constantly have everyone on their junk. It might seem cool to them at first, but it eventually becomes a blur after an entire evening of meeting hundreds of people who are essentially the same person. When you first introduce yourself, act like you don’t care about a job – it’s the last thing you bring up in person. Talk to them because you noticed something about them, or you overheard something they said. Leave work at work and be observant; talk to them like a real person.
4) Do your homework.
To add to your layers of conversational topics, why not research who your targets for that night are? Before every interview I’ve had, I find out who is doing the interviewing and then I Google and LinkedIn creep them to find out who they really are. Learn about them, their passions, what they’ve achieved, or even what their kids have achieved. Show up to networking events armed with this knowledge and just direct the conversation towards something you know they will feed off of. Take command of the conversation and keep calling the shots: give the people what they want to hear.
5) Establish time constraints.
The reason why people often get so uncomfortable talking to strangers is because they are not sure when they interaction is going to end, so their mind becomes distracted at trying to find an excuse to end things. Before you get into the meat of the conversation, establish a time constraint. It could be something as simple as: “I was just on my way to the washroom, but…” Keep your conversations brief, to the point, and then gracefully abandon them. You want to think quickly on your feet, establish a brief connection, and then when the conversation is just starting to slide, get out. You must be the one taking control of the interaction; if you dictate when the conversation is over, it will place you in a dominant position, and it also makes you less annoying since you don’t hover around them and drag the conversation on.
If you establish a time constraint, your value provider target is going to be more at ease because you have established the framework for the duration of your interaction. They will be a more attentive listener and are more likely to remember you since you are the one who leaves them hanging. This is a great chance to leave them a business card. When you hand them your business card, write down the key topic of your conversation so that it jogs their memory.
6) Speak slowly
Nervous people make other people nervous because their actions are quick, jittery, and evoke a sense of unpredictability. This puts your targets on edge and distracts them from the message of your conversation. If you take a deep breath and speak slowly, this will relax you and your audience, and they are more likely to receive your message in a positive, memorable way. Speaking slowly also shows that you’re not intimidated by talking to someone important, and executives will treat you with more respect as a result.
7) Be funny, or at least learn the art of comedy
Humour is a universally liked trait, and funny people are generally more popular than those who aren’t. If you aren’t naturally funny, start teaching yourself to be. Humour is an intelligent craft that is performed by mastering the abstract relationships between two seemingly unrelated things, manipulating language, or being observant. Study the joke patterns of your favourite comedians, or even read a few books on the basics of humour. Most humour follows basic patterns with interchangeable words and subjects, so once you understand how to construct a joke and work on your timing, humour can come naturally to anyone.
An improv class is also recommended, as it will help you loosen up your nerves and help you think creatively. Humour is a reflection of someone who is emotionally intelligent, observant, and pleasant to be around: who wouldn’t want to hire the person who provides this to their company?
Ok, so that covers how to present and conduct yourself at a networking event, but as I mentioned before, these are not the best places to meet value providers. Recall the last sentence of tip # 2: “The best friendships and relationships are founded on passion, so find out what theirs are and build from there.” You want to use context as your aid in maximizing the chance for aligning passions with a value provider, and there are numerous places to do that.
Here are the best 4.
Volunteering unites people for a cause and does not discriminate in terms of wealth or status. It’s an excellent way to meet like-minded people and develop a relationship not based on something superficial like work. Whatever cause you’re volunteering for will take centre stage, and employment will come up later on in conversation. As long as you show that you’re dedicated and hard-working, value providers that are present will recognize the value that you can provide their company and are more likely to help you out with your job search. The fact that you’re volunteering in the first place already cements the fact that you care about more the world than money.
2) Learn to golf or play tennis
It is said that most big business deals are not made in the boardroom, but on the golf course. Our current North American business model dominated world dictates that high ranking executives play golf together and forge business partnerships in the process. Tennis is also present on the list because it too is associated with the country club crowd, but due to the more intense nature of the sport, it will never be as popular as the much easier-going golf. If you don’t know how to play golf or even tennis, start learning. Even if you’re opposed to the idea of golf because of elitism, the wasteful environmental nature it promotes, or it seems too expensive, these are the rules of the game. You have to play by them or you’ll get left behind.
One other option is to get a part-time position at a high end country club/golf course and use your position there to expand your network. This can really pay off if you’re skilled at golf or tennis, because then you can provide a lot of value to executives who might need a few pointers. They just might return the favour by hooking you up with a job.
3) Join a summer intramural sports league
Excellent way to meet like-minded people. Get a team together or join one as a free agent. Virtually every executive is competitive in some fashion, so organized sports are a great outlet to foster a sense of healthy competition. It’s another example where everyone is levelled based on their skill and ability, not on their salary.
4) Acquire a second job
Get a second job for evenings or weekends in a service-related position such as a bartender or a waiter/waitress. Aim for a classier place where you’ll have a better chance to run into higher profile contacts, and then just let the conversations flow naturally. Talk about where you went to school, what you’re currently doing at your job, but don’t hedge the conversation on these points. Make most of it about your contacts, but if you must speak about yourself, talk about your passions. Again, it’s all about finding similar passions with others and aligning them in a way to make a connection.
Most of your success in networking doesn’t boil down to who you talk to or where you go: it all comes down to who you are and how you apply that to the real world. Sure, your parents might know someone who can give you a job, but it’s up to you to excel at it and not screw everything up. You can go to 50 networking events per year, but if you don’t provide an ounce of value to the people you’re talking to, why would they hire you, let alone remember you? If you want to be serious about career advancement and proper networking, just keep this in mind: your career will never advance unless you advance yourself.