Cecome a networking pro. Period.

The literature on networking is extensive, but here are a few key insights I have been able to gather over the past decade, both from working in industry and in exchanges with clients:

Brainstorm – Unleash your creative mind, get started – sit down and write a list of people and sources that may help you explore the topics/careers/industries you are interested in. If you do not know where to start, just “google” some of the key words you have in mind – this promises to fuel your thought process. Great sources are also trade journals and specialty publications (hint: don’t overlook the ads companies place…they may lead to great contacts), recruiting sites such as vault.com or monster.com, company sites, professors, alumni of your school, your peers, friends, family, and don’t forget: your neighbor (i.e. the person right next to you). Key is to be open-minded and look also in not so intuitive places. Develop an initial list of individuals you wish to contact. Challenge yourself and come up with at least 20 names, try for 40. If you are struggling, bring in a ‘brainstorming buddy’, someone who knows your strengths and can support your efforts to generate ideas.

Move To Action – Once you have your list, get going. Use time management techniques to be sure to get things done steadily, on schedule. Commit to contacting a specific number of people by a certain point in time. If this sounds overwhelming, take it step by step and one person at a time. Important is to move forward, even if you are taking baby steps. For example, you can build an excel spreadsheet, listing individual action items, such as emails sent, phone calls made, thank you notes and work your way through this list.

Keep it simple. If you meet an interesting person spontaneously, introduce yourself (Name/Your Background/What you are interested in learning more about), let your contact know that you are excited about the opportunity to speak with them, ask for permission to speak with that person for x (precise, short, stick to it) minutes, and then move quickly towards asking a few key questions, such as:

“How did you get into this line of work?”

“What do you like most about it?”

“What do you find challenging?”

If you first need to set matters into motion, the introductory message comes as a separate step before the actual conversation takes place. Via email, to set up a phone or in-person session, you essentially follow the same guidelines of introducing yourself and your purpose (hint: focus on the topic that interests you, avoid mentioning the words “networking” or “informational interview” as these much “abused” terms risk turning some people off. Instead: stress that you are interested in your counterpartys’ insights!).  Also, you will need to let your contact know how you got their contact information and when you plan to follow up to set up the actual conversation. Key is to keep it short, simple, precise.

Once you call to schedule the meeting, make sure you start out with re-introducing yourself and as a next step asking “Is this a good time to speak?” If the response is “No”, ask when would be good for you to call back. If your counter part lets you know that they are not interested to speak to you in general, give yourself a push, ask: “Do you know someone that matches your experience that I should speak with about my interests?”

In general, this is a difficult but important step. Once accomplished, take a minute to breathe. Pad yourself on the back on your progress. Well done.

Respect the 12 minute rule. This is important. Not only should you keep these networking contacts brief to make them attractive to potential contacts in the first place. But also: make the time you are asking for specific (be it 12 or 15 or 20 minutes) and stick to it.

Referrals. Referrals. Referrals. I cannot emphasize this part enough. Basically you are aiming for the snowball effect. At the end of each networking conversation, make it a natural part to say:

“Could you recommend two people that I can speak with?” or

“Where else could I find people who do this kind of work?”

“May I call on these people?”

“May I mention your name?”

“Can I say that you recommended I call on them?”

Be sure to follow-up on these leads. Later, as part of your networking, I recommend you also keep the person in the loop who sent you the referral. Send a brief email, thanking them, include a learning if you can. If you have no additional insights, this is fine too. Important is that you stay on the ball. Occasionally this leads to more referrals. Most importantly, you come across as professional and courteous.

Take notes – on everything. Given how complex networking tends to get, I strongly recommend you start a spreadsheet where you can keep track of your efforts. Note down anything your contacts mention, ranging professional insights to highly personal information such as the camp their kids will attend this summer.  This will be particularly helpful in your effort to write personalized and effective thank you emails.

Follow up – For starters: email a thank you note, no later than two days after your conversation. And yes, I suggest email. Traditionally, networking professionals recommended that you should write both an email and a hand written note. From my experience, there are a number of reasons that speak for focusing on email: it is fast, you can be sure the person receives it, makes extensive networking efforts more manageable, and finally: it is environmentally friendly, an aspect more and more people are sensitive to. However, if sending a hand-written note makes you feel more comfortable, there is nothing wrong with it.

The follow-up rule also extends beyond the initial thank you note: when you identify an opportunity that would offer a value to one of your connections, reach out to them. This will keep you fresh in their minds and occasionally new opportunities arise from this.