Don't Network Like Everyone Else
How to network like a pro without blending in with the pros.
There was this one time I attended a conference on sustainable agriculture because my favorite podcast hosts were on the agenda. Little did I know that 1) only three other attendees (out of hundreds) were also college students, and 2) I would end up with a summer internship simply because I showed up, introduced myself to the podcast host, and he happened to also run a business.
Networking is another one of those topics that gets talked about frustratingly often without much tangible advice on how to do it, and do it effectively. At best, the advice to “go network!” is followed by “go talk to people.” While talking to new people is a critical part of networking, it’s akin to telling someone who wants to start lifting weights they should “go to the gym.” Well, obviously. But once I’m there, what do I do? And how do I know which gym? And how often should I go? In the gym of networking, there are similar questions. Let’s find some answers.
Network in your area of interest (but don’t limit your options)
If you’re pursuing a career in agriculture education, you’re likely going to gravitate towards conferences for agriculture teachers. Surrounding yourself with folks who are doing what you want to do one day, or who are walking along the same path as you, is invaluable to a successful career on that path. However, think creatively about where else you can find valuable connections. As an agricultural educator, you’ll want support from community members: maybe go to a local city council meeting or volunteer group to build a strong network with those less invested in agriculture than you. Perhaps you’re established in a sales career, but could use some technical expertise on how to use digital tools to strengthen your sales numbers; if you spent time in a tech club in college, you might be able to lean on a past classmate for some wisdom. As with living out your purpose, some curiosity helps here. I went to the sustainable agriculture conference not because I necessarily wanted a career in that sector of the industry, but because I knew I liked agriculture and it looked like I would learn a lot.
Don’t just network where (or how) everyone else does it
Have you ever been to a career fair at your university or a student conference? Frankly, those are tough. I end up feeling stiff and competitive (and not in a good way) and I struggle to come across as genuinely as I would hope. My personal advice is to network so well before the career fair that you don’t need the career fair to network. Show up to conferences where other college students don’t. Reach out to the folks you follow on Twitter and ask for advice on your career path. Show interest in their careers, not just in getting what you want (see more on this below). If you do this with purpose, you’ll be able to show up to the career fair and already know a recruiter or someone else from the company who you can use as a connection point to show you’re invested. This is not to say people don’t get great jobs at career fairs; however, career fairs are not the only way to get great jobs. I got that internship because I showed up in a place other students weren’t, which meant the odds were stacked in my favor simply by sheer ratio of professionals to students. Additionally, showing up indicated I had initiative and wasn’t afraid to do something new, and I had the guts to walk up to a stranger and introduce myself. (Low-key, though, I was scared to go, and I didn’t even realize how few students there were, so I was even more scared when I got there. Fortunately professionals are less scary than I thought and everything worked out.)
If you’re on the employer/professional side here, this applies to you, too: if you show up and invest in young talent, particularly where other employers are not, you will stand out. Also on this note, don’t be discouraged if a student considers your internship and accepts another, instead. If you keep showing you genuinely care about their career path, they’re much more likely to consider you again the next year or even for a full-time job. I accepted my full-time job for this summer in part because of a sales training manager who didn’t give up on me or my career path dreams after I turned down an internship the prior year.
Networking should be mutually beneficial
Don’t buy into the lie that young people have no value to add to professionals. One of my mentors talks about the concept of “liberating a mentor.” People with experience want few things more than to share the wisdom they’ve earned through those experiences. By asking for advice, you’re granting them permission to share it. Networking for a job? Yes, the potential employer can give it to you, but they’re also looking for someone to do the job, and do it well; your networking with them is providing potential value to their company. Looking for a career path mentor? Yes, they’ll offer you plenty of advice, but don’t underestimate the hope and encouragement you can give them by actually taking their advice. A mentor once recommended I read a particular book, and I did. The next time we talked, he asked if I read it. When I said yes, he was incredibly pleased. I did not realize how few mentees follow through with advice from mentors, and how taking it into consideration—even if you don’t end up doing exactly what they tell you, as you must still think for yourself—is the best way to honor their investment in you. After following up on LinkedIn with the podcast host at the conference, he invited me to visit his office, meet the team, and help put on a farmer meeting. He hadn’t officially extended an internship offer, but this was a way to show I was willing to invest in the business. It worked, and I had one of the most fulfilling summers of my life.
Networking can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be confusing. If you show up in places with people who interest you, make it part of your lifestyle instead of waiting for the moments where everyone else is scrambling to do it, and deliberately seek to add value to your network, you’ll have a head start in your life and your career. When it comes down to it, networking is about people, and anytime you can make someone else’s life better, yours will end up better along with it.
Before you go: is both a friend and a mentor whose fields of expertise are different enough from mine, yet tangential enough, to provide a great deal of value to my writing. He’s a great example of someone who puts curiosity into practice in his networking and elsewhere.
One of my biggest struggles with networking is the follow up after the follow up: I can send an email to say “thank you for taking time to talk with me” but how do I stay in touch often enough that my interactions aren’t just happening when I need something? Stay tuned for a follow up post on how to follow up the follow up.
Journal Prompt of the Week
How do you feel about approaching a new person? Is that how you want to feel, and, if not, how might you shift those feelings?