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Your next opportunity may not come from above: lose your “networking intimidation” and learn how to use your network more effectively

When you hear the word “networking,” what comes to mind?

For most of us, the picture isn’t pretty. You’re at a happy hour with a cocktail in hand. The big boss stands at the center of a circle of co-workers.

Everyone around you seems to have the perfect thing to say, while you wait at the edge of the conversation like someone looking for an opening in Double Dutch.

You need the right words to dazzle the higher-ups–words that will show your wit, your dedication, and your leadership potential. Meanwhile, your stomach is in knots and your hands are so sweaty the cocktail glass nearly slips to the floor.

Sound familiar?

We’ve all been in those pressure-cooker situations. If you’re not a natural schmoozer, they can feel like torture.

But there is good news: you don’t have to be a professional schmoozer–the perfect one-liner always on the tip of your tongue, wallet perpetually full of business cards–to be an effective networker.

Some more good news–networking is not only about interacting with those higher than you on the professional ladder. (Not by a long shot.) Your network is a powerful tool in your arsenal; when you understand how to use it more effectively, you’ll see more possibilities for your professional growth.

Let’s take a look at how networking sideways can positively impact your career.

Understand What Networking Is

We all know that networking is essential. But not a lot of people have a firm grasp of what networking is. We’ve talked about what networking isn’t–specifically, amazing the CEO with your repartee. (At least, that’s only a very, very small part of it).

Here’s what can make the idea of networking less scary: most of the time, it is simply building relationships.

When your friend from college lands her dream job and you pick up the phone to say congratulations–that’s networking. When you contact a professional in your field to gain a new insight–that’s networking. Even something as simple as sending a thoughtful card to a colleague could fall under the umbrella of networking.

Chances are, you’ve done one or all of those things. Did you think about how you were building your network?

Your Network

Every time you engage with colleagues or would-be colleagues in a friendly, professional manner, you are strengthening your network. This type of networking is a far cry from the dog-and-pony show of the schmoozy cocktail party

According to the Harvard Business Review, a personal network can act as a safe space for your growth and development. Also, when you’re ready for a new challenge, your network can provide you with referrals.

A Personal Network is a safe space for your growth and development

The key is to build your network when you aren’t job-searching. When you’re on the job-hunt, your interactions with others are, by nature, transactional.

However well-intentioned your desire to keep in touch, you’re hoping the other person will do you a favor that will lead to your next position. (Favors aren’t all bad–studies show that people like others more after doing them a favor).

Still–nurturing your relationships and having a good network in place before you call on them to help you find your next opportunity can help you gain confidence when it’s time for “the ask” later on.

Be Kind

So: you need to have a strong personal network in place before you even think about your next career move. The secret to doing that? Care about people.

Keep in touch with your professional network and alumni network at every stage of their careers, and don’t burden relationships by thinking about whether someone can help you “get ahead.”

Send a note of congratulations to a friend who lands a new position. Tell your boss thank you if you found a presentation or workshop especially meaningful.

Remember birthdays–of your co-workers, clients, employees, etc. How you treat people is just as important–if not more important–than what you know.

As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said and did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Nurture the relationships in your network however and whenever you can. When the time is right, your network will be there for you.

Get Social

Everyone knows about LinkedIn as an invaluable source for the job-hunter, but these days no sphere of your social network should be counted out as you search for your next opportunity. Employers frequently post job vacancies on Facebook and Twitter.

Are you searching for a particular position, or do you have a new business you’d like to spread the word about? Today it’s easier than ever to activate the people in your network and let them know how they can help you.

It’s important to engage meaningfully with your social network before you make “the ask.” There are many ways to do this: commenting on blogs or profiles, participating in a crowd-funding project, engaging in Twitter chats or Facebook Live events, providing a free Webinar for those in your field. When you add value to your online network, you immediately stand out.

Think of online communication as a tool to connect with friends and find people who may become friends. When reaching out to new connections, emphasize what you have in common. Keep communication friendly and short. When you do go for “they ask,” follow the same rule: keep your question brief, and easy to say “yes” to.

Don’t Forget the Extracurriculars

We’re all a lot more than what we do for a living. Are you active in a local nonprofit or arts organization? Do you attend conferences for something you consider a “hobby”– be it writing, woodworking, or improvisational comedy?

These “outside” experiences are an important part of your personal development. They also provide you with limitless opportunities to meet people–some of whom may become high-quality connections in your network.

Be careful to surround yourself with positive energy; seek out people and networking groups who challenge you, inspire you, and who provide valuable new insights. Exactly the qualities you would want in a good friend.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Lateral Move

Say you’ve been in your position for a while and are itching for a change, yet there are no available opportunities immediately above you. However, a position has opened up that’s a “sideways” move. The job won’t result in increased salary or prestige, yet will give you new skills.

A sideways career move is not an obvious choice, but there are many benefits to making a lateral transition. You’ll meet interesting new people who can enhance your network. You may report to a different boss with a personal network of his/her own. .a boss who recognizes your talent and drive and can give you a great referral further down the line.

More immediately, you’ll gain new skills which will help you understand the bigger picture of how your company operates. This enhanced understanding of your organization’s inner-workings will make you more attractive to the higher-ups–much more than a dazzling one-liner at a cocktail party will.

If there is any “secret” to networking, it’s this: be friendly.

To the boss and the big boss, yes. But also, to everyone–those at your level of experience, those below you, those who may be employed in a completely different industry which you find intriguing.

Think of networking effectively as creating a circle, not climbing a stair-step. You always want to be pushing the boundaries of that circle outward and diversifying your network.

Someone in your circle will hold the key to your next opportunity–or someone in your circle’s circle. Maybe when you’re ready, your circle will overlap with someone else’s to form a Venn diagram with you and your dream job at the center.

Who knows?

Written By
Jennifer Locke is an author, author coach, and ghostwriter. With nearly a decade’s worth of experience writing books, Jennifer helps entrepreneurs write books to take their businesses to the next level.

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