In this day and age, networking can be as simple as sending a friend request to someone whose work you admire. But what good is it to amass a huge list of people you "know" if you don't actually use that list?
In my line of work, networking is essential. If I need someone who makes taxes their life to look over an article on the latest IRS rule change for me to make sure I'm not a complete idiot, all I have to do is send out a tweet. If I check the calendar and see it's partner promotion time, all I have to do is reach out to a few people at the firm and ask nicely for the information I want. When I'm trolling accounting events IRL, I try to meet and greet with as many people as possible as you never know when I'll need a partner at a small firm in Texas or a professor of a huge accounting program in Maryland to help me out on a story.
For you guys, networking is just as important. Real networking, not shmoozing for shmoozing's sake (that has its own value, of course).
The AICPA blog has some tips from a senior audit manager in Kansas that should help you kids figure out what this networking stuff is all about:
- Networking is a two-way street. You strengthen your network and reinforce its bonds when you network from the outside in. Ask yourself how you can be of service to others in your network. Answer queries you see on LinkedIn, respond to requests to endorse or connect others to those in your network. By helping someone else in your network, you’ll make a positive impact and create a reputation for yourself as a networker who can help drive results. That reputation will serve you later on, when you need the network to work positively for you.
This rule applies not just to networking but to life. People aren't going to do things for you if you don't do things for them. No one likes the friend that comes over and drinks all the beer in your fridge. Bring your own 6 pack and you'll be invited back.
- Volunteer at a nonprofit organization. There are more professional and charitable organizations out there than you can possibly imagine; the key is to find a group whose purpose you care about. Find the right group and commit to actually helping the organization, not just attending their meetings or happy hours. Go to some meetings or events and make an honest effort to get to know the people and the organization. Once you know it could be a good fit, ask the leadership how you can get involved or if there are committees you can join. Committees are a great way to get to know the people in the organization and develop strong relationships. It is critical that if you are able to get a foot in the door that you follow through on any commitment you give. Volunteering isn’t just about growing your network though, it is also about giving back and providing your time to help others.
I volunteer 20+ hours a week to cat rescue and have to say, it's definitely helped me become a more well-rounded, responsible person. The cats have to get to and from adoption events, they have vet appointments to make, and I have to work on my social skills when interacting with people interested in adopting kittens who don't even deserve a stuffed animal much less a living animal. My organization is 100% volunteer, so we need people to fundraise, make sure we are compliant with state and federal non-profit rules, stay on top of the cats and kittens in our program, and coordinate events. Volunteering is not only a good thing to do, it's a good resume item.
If you don't like cats, there are only 100,000 other non-profits that would love your help.
- Building a network takes effort. Simply walking around an event with a cocktail in one hand and business cards in the other won’t develop many meaningful relationships. Developing relationships is something that takes time and a history of positive interactions. Try to get to know people you want to connect with and do more than just meet them and exchange business cards. Ask about their business and how you can help them, or who you know that can help them. If you can do that, or even show you are interested in trying, you will create something to build on that is more than just a business card in someone’s desk drawer.
Actually, some of my best relationships have been forged over a cocktail or two at the bar but that is neither here nor there. One thing I try to do after events is go through my stack of business cards and send a quick "hey, it was nice to meet you" email to the person I met.
- Once you make those connections, maintain the relationships. Set reminders to ask people to lunch periodically and do not let them become one-and-done encounters. Every so often, I go through my stack of business cards and see who is in there that I haven’t had contact with in a while. If too much time has passed since my initial contact, my business card might as well be just another name in the phone book to them. Don’t let your work of connecting with someone turn into just another business card in a drawer.
Business card hoarding is about as useful as LinkedIn connection hoarding. Be picky about who you maintain an ongoing relationship with — you don't need to lunch with every individual you've ever met — but definitely keep up those relationships.
As the AICPA piece says, "The benefits of having a great network are too numerous to list here, but one thing is for certain: the earlier you start and the more effort you put in, the larger, more influential and more rewarding your network is sure to be." This may not seem high on your priority list but as you move through your career, you never know who is going to present you with a huge opportunity that you wouldn't otherwise find. For the small amount of effort involved, it's worth it.