Networking is one of those things where it seems like you can either do it or you can't. Starting and establishing work relationships, reaching out to people who inspire you in industries you want to work in, making the first move... It's intimidating! And that's at the best of times. In a world where 40% of Canadians were working from home by the end of March and all regular networking opportunities have been cut off, it can feel like starting or furthering your career is not only hard but impossible.
But take heart! While the world we live in is unimaginably different, it doesn't mean that establishing or growing your network in order to further your career is off the table. We spoke to two smart U.K.-based networkers about the hows and whys of networking in a shut-down world: Mariam Jimoh, founder and CEO of WCAN, a network devoted to the professional development of Black women, and Sedge Beswick, the founder and managing director of the global marketing agency Seen Connects.
Why should I care about networking?
The first and perhaps the biggest question is why exactly should networking be a priority right now? Mariam tells R29 that it's a skill which feeds into every element of our lives. "It makes you more confident, helps you keep connected to your industry and sector, it provides an eye on all available opportunities and helps you meet people who may play a huge role in your personal and professional development."
This is particularly important for minorities, she says, "because of an unconscious bias that we all have — networking effectively attempts to level out the uneven field we may start on and access opportunities that may not have been clearly outlined for us. Sometimes we think that we have to just work, work, work, but life and opportunity is about more than that and networking well, with people of different calibre and levels, can make or break our careers."
It can also act as a kind of safety net, Sedge adds. "You never know where you’ll end up or what advice and support you could need along the way. It is invaluable to treat people the way you want to be treated, making time for people regardless of your level inside and outside of work."
What are the essential tools I need?
Without face-to-face networking opportunities, the online tools we have to make use of are more important than ever. Both Mariam and Sedge point to Zoom and LinkedIn as vital basics.
"LinkedIn is invaluable as you know you can target people who are also in the mindset for work, careers, projects," says Sedge. "People who previously have been completely unapproachable as they’ve schlepped up and down the country, ran between meetings, suddenly have time, are looking for others to connect to but also understand and appreciate how unsettling the market is and are more open to offering support and advice."
While this is industry-specific, Sedge also finds great value in Instagram, whether it's for following clients, influencers or prospective leads. "It gives you more insight into their world and you can have a conversation outside of just the day-to-day job role."
For Mariam, building a "robust personal profile" is of paramount importance, on LinkedIn and on Twitter. "Try to build up something interesting to view or explore outside of your networking or meeting. I find using LinkedIn to keep up to date with things happening in my industry and sector is great, also Twitter to keep the conversation going in a relaxed but informative fashion. Joining LinkedIn groups or forming Twitter lists is a great way to manage this."
Perhaps most importantly, she emphasizes a good video and internet connection. "Make sure yours is as good as it can be to avoid wasting time!"
How can I establish connection when I've never met my colleagues?
Working with colleagues but never having met them isn’t necessarily a problem unique to 2020 but it’s definitely become more prevalent. And so the question becomes: how do you overcome this unusual barrier?
You just have to be brave, take opportunities where you see openings, and be prepared. "If you’ve got the job and there’s a reason to chat – email and ask for a (virtual) coffee," says Sedge. "You have the easiest excuse that you just started and you’re new. Perfect! To make the most of your time, prepare questions that will help in your role and have researched who they are and the area they work on." It also helps if you have something you can offer them – some kind of support on a project or second pair of eyes on some copy.
Mariam adds that it’s always beneficial to watch and learn how your new team currently works and communicates: "Understand their preferences for different types of work, whether they prefer a quick call over a quick email or really want you to turn that video on even though it’s 8.30am. Understanding communication preferences will be so much more comfortable for everyone to get to know each other." But you must be assertive too — don’t let your lack of physical presence mean you fade into the background. "Remind people who you are, what you’re up to and try to be present. Try to find people to bounce ideas or ask questions to as a basis of a great work buddy relationship too."
What if I'm at the beginning of my career?
To say it’s a hard time to be entering the workforce is a bit of an understatement. But there are measures you can take to help you on your way.
"It is so important to try your best to build up a personal brand and presence virtually as you aren’t able to do this in person," says Mariam. This could be via actual web formats, emails, calls, anything. It will all work together to make you less forgettable. "My go-to is to always reach out with something that may be interesting to the person you are reaching out to. Whether I have an ask or not, I will always shoot a quick email or message with 'something interesting I thought you’d enjoy' – this could be a great way to start conversations and develop a relationship."
And while it’s important to have confidence and just send that message, you should avoid triple-messaging and hounding people. Mariam adds: "Radio silence may be indicative of a very busy period for someone or a lack of interest and that’s okay. It is two-sided after all!"
If you have a specific career goal that you’re aspiring to, you should find the best contact for that company or industry and follow them on LinkedIn or Twitter. When a job does arise, you’ll be among the first in the know. You shouldn’t just be a follower either – be engaged, says Sedge. "Respond to their updates – they may have released a new campaign, asked for opinions on something… My favourite stat in marketing is that you have to see a piece of content 11.4 times from a brand before you convert. The same goes for people — be that gentle ticker to their world."
So what are the key dos and don'ts?
The key things to take away are to be personable, polite and "respectful of everyone’s time — especially in these COVID times," says Mariam.
Sedge echoes this, emphasising that you should always put yourself out there and make an effort but don’t pester or act ungrateful. "My main pointer would be to give value by showing you’ve researched. There’s nothing worse than a generic message that’s a copy and paste job so make it personal and honest, and people will be more engaged and likely to respond. And thank people for their time. A follow-up and a bit of appreciation go a long way."