I decided to write a post on how to network effectively as a project manager because one of my staff highlighted it as a skill I do well. After their comment, it occurred to me that I have also counseled other PMs on how to network effectively. I thought about why I find networking relatively straightforward, whereas others have described it as awkward, scary, or ambiguous. Here are some common complaints about networking and how to solve them:
Complaint: Networking is awkward or intimidating. OG networking means standing in an ugly, windowless room juggling business cards and a glass of house wine. The event is not a success unless you’ve depleted your entire stack of cards, so you rush from person to person trying to hand out as many as possible. You’re not focused on the conversation at hand because you’re already thinking ahead to the next connection you’re supposed to make. After the event, you diligently transform your stack of cards into LinkedIn connections. Then, you proceed to never interact with those people again. In three months, you’ve forgotten how you know them.
Issue: Traditional networking feels awkward because it is inauthentic. You’re not making genuine social connections. The reason LinkedIn is successful is because it more closely mimics how humans form social connections—i.e., through people you already know and trust.
Complaint: You’re not sure how to network. Networking effectively does not mean you’ve hit the 500+ connections milestone on LinkedIn. It’s easy to add people, but it’s unclear what to do with these connections once you’ve added them.
Issue: Traditional networking focuses on making connections, not sustaining them. Because the task of sustaining connections is ambiguous, we procrastinate and end up doing nothing.
Here are some best practices for networking that address these common complaints and issues:
Rule #1: DON’T go to events billed as “networking” opportunities. They are a waste of time.
DO focus on building genuine connections by cultivating relationships with people you already work with.
Specifically, identify the key players above you, at your level, and below you, and get to know them and their work as well as a little bit about who they are outside of work. You can do this by asking your peers but also by setting up coffee dates or informational interviews. For super busy people, arranging a group coffee date can be a great way to break into their calendar.
If there is someone you only ever work with virtually, make an effort to meet them in person if possible. It’s much easier to build a relationship once you’ve had that initial face time.
When starting to work with someone new, set up a meet and greet session where you focus on getting to know each other as people. Setting aside 15 minutes to learn their background, goals, and preferred working style will pay dividends down the line.
Rule #2: DON’T treat conferences and other professional events as networking opportunities.
DO treat professional events as learning opportunities. Instead of focusing solely on how you can benefit, reflect on how your skills can add value to others. Adopting an attitude of community integration and continuous learning makes it more likely that you will make meaningful professional connections.
DO explore creative ways to expand your network. The reason I don’t attend more local project management events is that they often feel outdated, irrelevant, or stuffy. If you don’t like how current events are organized, start your own! If you don’t have the time or energy to invest in starting something new or if there is not a local market for your area of interest, turn to the Internet. I have virtually “met” a lot of badass PMs, particularly women PMs, on Twitter that are dispersed throughout the world. Find a like-minded community and connect with them to grow your PM knowledge and find ways of giving back.
Rule #3: DON’T worry about sending generic “catch-up” emails to your connections “periodically” (read: according to some elaborate schedule that you have to maintain.)
DO post relevant content on LinkedIn to: 1) give back to your profession and 2) keep others apprised of what you’re working on.
DO aim to meet one new person, or significantly deepen an existing relationship, monthly. Incremental progress is more effective long term.