Professional networking events—we’ve all been there. Here are some new ways to think about making business connections.
Professional networking events—we’ve all been there. Usually, we mull around the room awkwardly, a glass in our hands, trying to munch on a few crackers and talk to strangers between bites.
We’ve all read the tips for professional networking events, too, like “practice your elevator pitch” or “remember to ask for a business card.” Perhaps we follow a mnemonic device like picking out a color on someone’s tie to associate them with what they do or repeating their name three times during the conversation.
But do networking tips ever really work? Does anyone actually enjoy networking events, and do they even pay off? Are we just wasting our time?
If we really want to be better at networking, we can throw most of the standard tips for professional networking events out the window. The goal of networking isn’t about how many contacts we can make or how many business cards we can collect. The real goal is to build a real, quality connection.
If we walk out of the room with one great, authentic connection, it’s far more valuable than ten business cards that we’ll toss in a drawer and forget. The truth is, we can build that great connection with almost anyone. Will it always be a relationship that will pay off professionally? Perhaps. But if we’re only looking for new customers and clients, we’re approaching professional networking with the wrong mindset.
We should look at events as though we’re the host. What does that mean? It means we assess the needs of others in the room. We may welcome them; we might ask if we can get something for them. Most importantly, we show a genuine personal interest in them—not because we want to “sell” them something or because we want to get their card, but because we actually see them for the person they are. We sincerely want to get to know them.
Most people try to “work the room” looking for someone who will be useful to them as a customer or who will be the next person who can give them something. But we’ve found that it’s far more engaging (and authentic) when we flip that idea on its head.
When we hold events at the Wright Foundation, we help attendees take a different angle. Even if our events are career-focused, we know that authentic engagement doesn’t simply come from reporting what we do or talking about the nuances of our day-to-day tasks. If we want to really network with people, we need to find better ways to connect with them on a deeper human level. We need to focus on human networking, not just professional networking. That means looking at who the person is. It means listening and engaging, not on a superficial level, but in a genuine way.
What if we went beyond the elevator pitch to discuss the real struggles our peers are facing in their careers? We might find out far more if we asked about the biggest challenge they have at their office or the largest roadblock they’re facing right now. Will we be able to help them with that problem? It’s hard to say, but chances are that when we start to really engage with each other, we’ll find ways to help each other now or in the future.
When we begin many of our events at the Wright Foundation, we start by discussing and filling out the C.A.R.E. personality profile. The profile isn’t simply about what people do and their career goals, but who they are in any situation. It helps people understand how they interact with each other—are they Cooperators? Do they tend to be Analyzers? Are they Regulator types who want to be in charge? Or are they Energizers who lead the crowd with enthusiasm?
When people start to reach deeper into their personality type, they begin to talk about those bigger-picture concepts—who they are, what they value, where they struggle. It gets to the core of their emotional intelligence, their values, and their vision. In other words, things get real. Instead of putting forth a polished, professional, generic answer to questions, they start to really open up and talk about their approach and perspective on business and, more importantly, on life.
We may think that our business life and personal life are entirely separate and never cross over, but the truth is that most of us display very similar personality traits, whether we’re at home or the office. We don’t turn into a different person when we lock our office door and drive home. Many times, our relationships at work are similar to our relationships with our family and friends. We may have similar challenges, communication styles, and reactions. We may even find that certain work connections mirror certain relationships in our family life. Our boss might be very similar to our mother, or a coworker may remind us of the relationship we have with our brother. We often see these dynamics repeat in different areas of our life.
Like professional networking, when we go on dates, we often have this idea of putting our polished selves out there. We might dress a certain way, answer questions with what we think our date wants to hear, or we may try to order something from the menu that seems “appropriate.” But what if we were open and honest about who we were and what we really wanted? What if we weren’t trying to seduce someone with a concept of who we might be, but instead, we made it a goal to engage with them as our true selves?
It seems funny at first to think of walking into a date wearing sweatpants and saying, “I have $20,000 of student loan debt, four cats, and I would like to order the lobster, please.” But what if we did just that (assuming it’s reflective of who we really are)? After all, after a few dates, chances are our love interest is going to discover the cats and see us in sweats. Presumably, at some point, they will also discover our student loan debt, and we will eat something expensive and messy in front of them. What if we cut the crap and got to the truth right away?
Becoming radically honest in our interactions may seem challenging. Or we may even think, “Okay, maybe that’s fine for our social lives, but not in professional settings.” But if we’re living our best lives and reaching our fullest potential, why not embrace our authentic selves in our interactions?
So how do we apply these tips and ideas to our next professional networking event? In the past, many of us may have gone in with a goal like “get the most business cards” or “get x number leads.”
This time we can make it a game to see if we can instead push ourselves to have better engagement. Instead of thinking of a business networking event as a serious event when you need to generate leads, take the pressure off. Instead, focus on better human engagement and building stronger connections. Make it an event that’s actually fun and exciting—treat it as an experiment and a new adventure!
What will this mean when we’re working the room? Instead of rushing through conversations, really listen. Instead of asking superficial questions about the weather, what the person does, or general topics, really go for the deeper discussions right away. What if we asked people, “What is your biggest problem? What do you need right now? How are you REALLY doing?”
From there, we can listen with intention. Ask ourselves how we will see the other person for who they truly are? How will we hold space for them as they engage with us? More critical than practicing “active listening tips,” where we’re trying to retain information (and waiting for the next break in conversation so we can share), simply listen. Focus on what the other person is saying. Get to know them and when asked for information, communicate with the same openness and candor.
If we want deeper engagement with others, we don’t need to wait for a special “networking event” either. We can find opportunities to engage with others throughout our day. Build your network of social connections by finding ways to engage with the barista at the coffee shop. Talk to the person next to you on the train. Strike up a conversation in the elevator that goes beyond, “nice weather we’re having.”
Our network builds our net worth. The more social ties we can cultivate and grow, the stronger our engagement skills become. Our circle of influence will broaden, and we’ll enjoy all the benefits of the networking event called life.
For more personal development ideas and opportunities to boost your career, explore our courses at Wright Now. We offer an array of class selections to help you discover a life of MORE.
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.