My name is Savannah Harper, and I play the role of Marketing Intern here at LifeBlue. Upon joining the LB team six weeks ago, I started what I consider to be my first 'real' job. At that moment, I was no longer just a student being prepped and trained for the conceptual real world, nor a waitress working only to pay the bills--- I was a young woman beginning her career. I had finally been given the opportunity to practice my passion professionally.
But now that I am officially a part of the 'real world' workplace, I am finding that there are some things that they just don't teach you in college. But perhaps these things require experience in order to be effectively learned. Let me explain.
This past weekend, the LB team attended the Big (D)esign Conference in Addison, TX, and this was of course my first appearance at such an event. Surrounded by hundreds of professionals in my field, I knew that this would be a great opportunity to network. I stocked my shiny new cardholder with as many of my business cards that would fit and remained hopeful that by the end of the weekend, it would be empty.
However, contrary to my expectations, I did not exchange a single one. Not only that, but I didn't even meet anyone. What happened? My confidence borders on overconfidence, and I am not one to be lost on words.
How did I miss my chance to make connections with people with whom I obviously share an interest? And more importantly, how do I ensure that I do not make this mistake again?
I spoke to Russel, LB's own 'Backboard,' for some insight on this issue. I told him that I was self-aware enough to admit that I did feel a bit intimidated being faced with seasoned professionals that all appeared to know one another (even though I know that's not necessarily true). What could a budding intern with no real connections offer such people? Russel responded with some good advice that I had not before considered.
His first point was to never view networking as an accumulation of cards. A business card from someone you don't know or remember is meaningless to the possessor. What someone like me--- or anyone for that matter--- can offer is conversation.
'Ask questions,' he said--- everyone enjoys talking about what he or she knows. If conversation leads to a business connection, then great. But if not, engaging conversation can be just as valuable; you now have the potential to be recognized and acknowledged in the future as a result of the interaction. And besides, building relationships is one of the main goals of good business.
Russel warned me, though, that initiating an interaction would not always be easy. It seems as if it should be as simple as walking up to a person or group and introducing yourself, but we all can relate to that fear that often prevents us from following through on such a bold move. The truth is that everyone, no matter how outgoing he or she may seem, is at least a little nervous about meeting new people. Besides, those that are considered 'outgoing' are most likely just more experienced in taking the initiative to break the barrier.
For something a little less terrifying, Russel pointed out that someone sitting near you or standing next to you in line can be a perfect candidate for conversation--- but that still doesn't mean it won't feel awkward. But hey, that's something we all have to get over if we want to connect with people, and Russel promised me that this would become more natural over time.
So what about my box full with almost a thousand business cards? How will I ever get these off of my desk and into another's wallet?
As Russel said before, this should not be the end goal of an interaction, but rather something that will present itself if the opportunity is right. Ask for the other person's card if you want it; he will do the same. If he offers up his, feel free to offer up yours, but don't force the exchange and turn what should be a friendly conversation into a selfish business situation.
So now what? Many sites that offer advice on networking emphasize the importance of follow up. With social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter, it's easy for anyone to digitally connect with others. It shows an interest in that person and a desire to continue developing the established relationship. Also, email is always a classic means of contact.
But with any further interaction, Russel reminded me that the main focus should remain on the relationship and not on the 'what can you do for me' mindset. People like to do business with people they know. Become a friend, not a business acquaintance, and in doing so, you will become a much more valuable contact.
This all seems so simple that I feel a bit foolish for not considering all these points before, but at least now I can say that my next opportunity to network has increased potential for success.
Wish me luck.
Also, I'm open to additional advice anyone might have to offer, so I'd appreciate any helpful feedback on this topic.