My favorite shoes are a pair of patent leather, open-toe sling backs that happen to be bright orange. They match perfectly with my bright orange patent leather handbag. When I wear this ensemble, I receive compliments as though I’m dripping in diamonds.
What does this have to do with networking?
In 2010, I was the director of a struggling kids cooking program. I needed a way to bring money and awareness to this important cause. A cooking demonstration fundraiser would be a great idea, I thought, but who did I know was a culinary RD and could fill seats and was of interest to sponsors? One name came to mind: Cheryl Forberg, RD, Chef, award-winning cookbook author and nutritionist for NBC’s The Biggest Loser.
Cheryl didn’t know me from Adam. But when I reached out and asked her if she would come, she graciously agreed. We raised enough money to meet the budget and brought in a new crop of volunteers to support the program.
Since that time, Cheryl and I have been at the same meetings, have shared cabs together, broken bread together, and traded e-mails about various professional questions. Recently, she looked at my not-hard-to-miss handbag and said, “What size shoe do you wear? I have a pair that would match that bag perfectly!” Two weeks later, the shoes arrived at my door.
It’s no secret that networking is an important part of career advancement. In fact, a Harvard University study found that 85% of job success and future job success comes from having well-developed “soft” and people skills, and only 15% from technical skills or knowledge. Soft skills are an aggregate group of personal attributes that essentially enable someone to collaborate and interface successfully with others. These attributes include interpersonal people skills, social skills, and communication skills. Networking facilitates each of these skills.
While some people relish in the opportunity to network, others have a visceral response that can border on paralyzing. If one of your resolutions this year is to become more comfortable with the art of networking or to network more successfully to advance your career, read on to learn how to make the risk of networking worth the reward.
1. Think of networking as a way to help others instead of promoting yourself. Many people are uncomfortable promoting themselves and feel they’re bragging about their work and experiences. Instead, genuinely connect with a colleague with something that can benefit them or their work. “If I read an article that makes me think of a specific person, or their area of interest, I send it right over to them with a short note,” says Jessica Setnick, MS, RD, CEDRD, creator of the educational programs Eating Disorders Bootcamp and Making Food Your Friend Again.
2. Start with an evergreen topic. It’s awkward when someone feels as though you’re networking with them solely for a job opportunity. Preparing topics of conversation is one of the best ways to build confidence before in-person or online networking opportunities. Instead, start with topics that are evergreen in nature. Nearly everyone can relate to technology, children, pets, or the weather. A simple “Is that a Garmin Vivoactive-HR watch?” can lead into a 10-minute chat about the latest in wearable activity trackers. Can’t think of anything to break the ice? Pay a compliment.
3. Take a break from technology. Successful in-person networking relies on paying close attention to the other person and showing respect for their time. In today’s world, this means putting screens away. Even a glance at a text is enough to dissuade someone from continuing a conversation. Why? That glance tells the person that text is more important than they are at that very moment. Show genuine interest and use technology for online networking. Scott Teresi, RD, former innovation manager at Talking Rain Beverage Company, says that the classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie had a monumental impact on him. “I learned the importance of truly being attentive and courteous when engaging with others.”
4. Find a safe person, place, or thing. Find a person who you trust or feel comfortable with and ask them how they network successfully. Ask yourself, “Who do I admire as a networker?” and approach them for a tutorial. Better yet, invite them to join you at the next fundraising opportunity or educational meeting to see them demonstrate their skills live.
Also, ask yourself “Where is a place that I feel the most secure? At my favorite coffee bar? Behind my computer screen? Yoga studio? On social media? Striking up a conversation with someone on common ground ensures comfort. Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, president and owner of Nutrition for the Future and cheerleader in chief of School Meals that Rock, has been called the “Kevin Bacon of School Nutrition,” as her connections are seemingly all just six degrees of separation. Hayes views conversation itself as the opportunity and takes full advantage of social media to network regularly. She frequently comments, tags, shares posts, and regularly sends birthday greetings to colleagues around the globe.
5. Make a (small) effort. In the dietetics profession, volunteering is one of the most influential ways to network. Local, state, or national positions are readily available, and the need for committed volunteers is ongoing. Make it known that you’re ready to volunteer by contacting the group organizers. Then, be prepared to agree to the task. Caroline Susie, RD, LD, manager of corporate wellness at Methodist Health System, advises, “Simply, say ‘yes’ to everything. You never know who your next boss or next connection might be. The biggest mistake is to do nothing.”
If raising a hand to volunteer seems overwhelming, Setnick suggests to first volunteer for a small position in an organization. “Usually the officers or committee members arrive early to meetings and that helped me get anchored and feel like one of the hosts of the function rather than a guest.” Or seek out a one-time-only volunteer option to test the waters before committing to something long term.
6. Start small and have goals. Networking doesn’t have to mean a huge time or energy commitment. Starting small or breaking it into manageable pieces is much more palatable.
Attending a meeting? Plan to go for only an hour and then grab dinner or lunch with a friend. Want to figure out LinkedIn? Spend 15 minutes reviewing the FAQ page. Going to a professional training? Exchange business cards with two people. Contact them within 24 hours.
7. Be aggressive and be ready to reciprocate. As the saying goes, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” My story about the orange shoes falls into this category. Not the shoes themselves, but the initial asking of Cheryl to be a presenter at the fundraiser. “If you want something—a new career, a mentor, advice, etc—you have to go get it,” Susie says. “Send the résumé. Make a follow-up call, not just a follow-up e-mail. Go volunteer, not just shadow.”
On the flip side, one of the best pieces of advice a colleague shared with me was to ask others how I can help them that day. Asking, “What can I do for you today?” is one of the most impactful closings to a conversation, as it usually produces an action item for one or both parties involved. The follow-through on that action item can mean the difference between making a successful connection and one that fades into the background.
For people who are naturally shy or consider themselves introverts, these tools can be effective in developing the soft skills that are critical to career development. Building authentic relationships based on common interest, good communication, and trust will provide opportunities for years to come.
— Robin Plotkin, RDN, is the founder and CEO of RDPC, Inc, a culinary and nutrition communications agency in Dallas. A 20+ year veteran of the profession, Robin is a multifaceted professional who brings extensive insight from the PR, nonprofit, food industry, retail, and culinary worlds to the table. She frequently speaks on the topic of business in dietetics. Learn more about Robin at www.robinplotkin.com and follow Robin @robinsbite.