Networking is an essential skill at every professional level. But it can seem more challenging as your career evolves.
Early in your career, you need to build a network that will provide you with everything from job leads and professional tips to camaraderie and commiseration. You put effort into growing your network because you won't succeed without it.
Now you're an executive. You've become the kind of person every recent graduate wants to meet, but connecting with your peers becomes harder. Why is that? It might be because you're so much busier now. Maybe it's because power is isolating, and it's rare to meet people who can relate to your experiences. Or it might be that the last few years of coping with a pandemic have left your social skills a little rusty.
Whatever the reason, it's never too late to build your peer network. You've already taken the first step. As a SHRM Executive Network member, you have opportunities to meet other HR leaders at both virtual and in-person events. This guide will help you maximize those opportunities, creating the lasting, authentic connections you need.
Step 1: Cultivate the Right Mindset
Creating a relationship with someone doesn't start with the other person. It starts with you. Before you walk into a networking event or sign on to a virtual EN:Assembly meeting, take a moment to check in with yourself.
You're about to enter a space full of people looking to make connections. But it isn't their job to reach out to you. You must decide in advance that you will be the one to approach others and start a discussion. It might seem like resolving to make the first move would make networking harder, but it's the opposite. When you assume responsibility for introducing yourself, you remove the uncertainty that leads to awkwardness, and that clarity allows you to approach the situation with confidence. You are in control of what happens next.
One of the big differences between networking at the beginning of your career and networking now is that you have a lot more on your plate these days. You may have a big meeting coming up, a project that needs attention or a situation at home that's always in the back of your mind. Those things are all important. But they don't need to be important right now. You must commit to keeping your attention in the moment. You can't form a connection with someone else and learn about their life if you're distracted by your own problems. Leave your worries at the door and make room for something new.
Authenticity can be intimidating. There's a reason we often default to talking about sports or the weather when meeting new people. It's a way to hold the other person at arm's length. But real, lasting connections require authenticity. You need to share something real about yourself, even if it makes you feel vulnerable. Now, "real" doesn't have to mean private or emotional, at least when starting out. It just means your discussion must be grounded in your real life and your real outlook. If that feels scary, remember the executives you're about to connect with are also busy people. They don't want to make a bunch of small talk any more than you do. You're doing them a favor by being willing to open up and talk about something that genuinely matters to you.
Step 2: Use Appropriate Body Language
Your connection with another person begins before either of you speaks. You can use body language to set the tone and enhance your conversations.
Adopt an Open Posture
You want your body language to convey that you're open to meeting new people. Avoid crossing your arms or legs, standing at an angle or otherwise appearing closed off from the person you're meeting. Instead, relax your limbs, face the person you're meeting head-on and lean in slightly to show interest.
Make Eye Contact
When you and the person you're approaching meet each other's gaze, you're signaling that you're open to a conversation. Continuing to make periodic eye contact throughout a conversation shows that you are focused on the other person and helps you gauge their reactions as you talk. You don't need to look them in the eye the entire time, but check back in periodically to show you're engaged.
This tip might sound obvious, but it can be easy to forget if you're nervous about meeting new people. Don't let social anxiety or any other worries show on your face. Take a deep breath and offer a warm, natural grin. Not only does this make you more approachable, but it can improve your mood.
Step 3: Find Connection Points
Now that your mind is engaged and your body language is open and approachable, you can introduce yourself to people. The goal is to get through this initial stage quickly, so you can progress to a deeper level of engagement that's more likely to create a lasting connection.
Read the Room
Begin by scanning the room for someone to approach. It will be easiest to introduce yourself to a person who is between conversations, but you can join a larger discussion if the participants are displaying relaxed, open body language. If you're interested in meeting a particular person but see they're engaged in a more involved conversation, you may briefly interject that you'd love a moment of their time later in the gathering.
Offer a Greeting
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a handshake was a reliable way to create a literal connection with another person. But now some people have sworn off shaking hands, while others are eager to restore the custom. But you don't need to let that uncertainty create awkwardness. If you want to shake hands, ask the other person if they'd like to as well, and now you've shown thoughtfulness. If you prefer not to shake, pre-emptively offer another greeting gesture—such as a wave or a bow—just outside of arm's length, and you've spared the other person from offering an unreciprocated handshake. If you like, you can even use that moment as a springboard for conversation, as the pandemic is now something we all have in common.
Make Connections Before Introductions
You don't need to make your initial meeting all about you. Instead of leading with a formal introduction, you can start by commenting on something you have in common, such as the event you're both attending, in a lighthearted way. You'll be more memorable if you focus on the moment you're sharing with this new person. You can always talk about where you work later.
Step 4: Listen with Intent
Before you can be a good conversationalist, you must be a good listener.
The person you're meeting knows things you don't know, has experiences you haven't encountered and has opinions you may not share. Treat all of that as a gift. What can you learn about this person? What will they teach you? How will they challenge you? When you cultivate a genuine interest in the other person, active listening becomes much easier.
Show You're Paying Attention
It isn't enough to hear what the other person is saying; you must also engage with it. You can do this by asking open-ended follow-up questions, referencing things the person said earlier in the conversation, and using engaged body language and eye contact. Keep an open mind as you listen. Resist the temptation to judge or offer unsolicited advice. Be empathetic instead of reactive.
Balance the Conversation
You don't want to dominate the conversation, but you don't want to be passive, either. If you only ask the other person questions about themselves, you're not sharing anything, which leaves the conversation unbalanced. Your questions can start to feel invasive, and you risk not leaving much of an impression—or leaving the wrong impression—on the other person. Instead, find ways to relate to what they're saying and then respond by sharing a story, an idea or an opinion that builds on the topic. This tactic creates an easy back-and-forth that builds trust and camaraderie.
Step 5: Create Authentic Discussion
As the conversation develops, you will begin to understand the other person. Now that you're past the introduction stage, you need to decide if this is a relationship you want to develop. You may feel like you're not going to click with this person, in which case it's OK to thank them for their time and excuse yourself. Or you can take things a little further and really try to get to know the other person.
Look for common ground with the other person. You may live in the same city, work in the same industry, or care about the same causes. Those commonalities can serve as a conversational "home base" that you can return to as you learn about one another. Talking about something you share makes it easier to balance the conversation while still giving you opportunities to dig a little deeper and learn more about your new connection and their outlook on the world.
Make Space for Fun
Networking shouldn't be overly serious. Showing your playful side is another way of being vulnerable with the other person. Talk about something irreverent, share a joke and leave room for a little mischievous fun. Having an impressive title or an interesting skill set might be enough to get you into someone's contact list. But your personality and your capacity to create joy will ultimately determine whether this relationship grows and flourishes.
Don't be afraid to talk about nonwork-related topics. As you connect with someone, they may share something personal or sensitive with you. This is a sign of trust, and you need to honor it by keeping that information to yourself. You can reciprocate with a personal truth of your own. It doesn't need to be a big secret or deeply emotional, it just needs to be true and signal to the other person that they can trust you as well. Showing vulnerability is a great way to build connections.
Notes on Making an Exit
How you leave a conversation is just as important as how you enter it. Whether you've enjoyed the other person's company or not, you should exit gracefully, making everyone feel like this was time well-spent.
Leave While It's Still Fun
Don't wait for a conversation to peter out. Make a good impression, get a sense of the other person, learn and share something, have a laugh or two, and then move on while things are going well. If you've talked to someone for 10 minutes, you probably have a good indication of whether this is a connection you'd like to follow up on in the future.
Don't Make Excuses
In a networking event context, you are expected to meet several new people. There's no need to invent a pretext for ending a conversation, especially if it would make you seem inauthentic. When you feel a discussion has either run its course or reached a pleasant place to pause, you can tell the other person you've appreciated this time together, but you want to go hone your networking skills. They probably want to do the same!
Ask to Follow Up, If You Mean It
The goal of networking is to form lasting connections. Exchanging contact info and arranging to meet again in another setting is a lovely gesture and a great way to keep the relationship growing. But you're not going to click with everyone you meet. Be sincere and honest. Don't say you'd love to grab dinner sometime unless you intend to follow up on the offer.
Sample Conversation Starters
You can't plan a conversation, but you can have ideas for beginning a discussion, switching topics or digging deeper as the need arises. Here are some starter questions you can use while networking, but don't feel limited by them or compelled to ask a question if you don't care about the answer. The best discussion topics are the ones that feel authentic to you.
What do you love about what you do?
What are you focused on at work?
What brings you joy at work?
What's your impression of the event so far?
What has been your biggest takeaway?
What do you wish people knew about your job/company/industry?
What excites you lately?
What worries you lately?
Where is home for you?
What do you do for fun?
How is your family?
How are you caring for yourself lately?
What else are you hoping to learn here?
Mo Fathelbab is the founder and president of Forum Resources Network LLC and co-founder of Harvard Business School Alumni Forums. He is the author of two best-selling books, Forum: The Secret Advantage of Successful Leaders (Lulu, 2008) and The Friendship Advantage: 7 Keys to Building Relationships that Transform Corporate Culture and Drive Productivity (Forum Resources Network, 2018).