There were times when I could have been a lot better at networking during my undergrad in IDS. I could have built better friendships that would also turn into professional contacts, and I would have had more people to ask about what to do next when I faced major professional challenges. Almost two years out of school, I think a lot about networking and about how changing my mentality around it might have helped me back then.
A network is not just people you know who have their lives together in a flashy way and might help you get cool jobs. After graduating, it’s actually going to be the random people you met at a campus action day and said hi to at the library for years. It’s the group you had study sessions with until 2 am. A network is the only good thing that comes out of group paper writing. It’s the WUSC sponsored refugee students you are friends with and add to LinkedIn. It’s remembering to email a professor to tell them something you didn’t even realize you learned in class until you ended up interning in India. It’s the email you wake up to from a Sub-Saharan African co-worker who is just checking in to say “hello, God Bless” a year after you worked with her. It’s the classmate who you will buy lunch for 3 years from now in New York City and ask about their job at a major philanthropy. And so on.
What I think a network is, really, is an attitude towards the system of people around you in your life. And while networks build naturally over time, there are a few ways to accelerate them by consciously adding a lot of value to others’ lives and giving people a chance to actually offer you what you’re looking for. Especially if you’re meeting quickly at events or parties. Here are some thoughts on this:
1. As the business kids might say, have an ‘elevator pitch’
What does this even mean? It means that it’s a good idea think of how you are going to make sense to other people when they meet you briefly for the first time. Can you succinctly explain what you’re doing at a particular time and place, give a short narrative about what you’ve done before this, and then sneak in what it is you’re looking for next? You shouldn’t be dishonest, and so of course it doesn’t have to be perfect.
If you really have no direction, that’s totally okay—just avoid rattling off a list that goes: “maybe law school, maybe a corporate social responsibility MBA, maybe I’ll teach in a refugee camp, or spend time in the arctic doing capacity building.” If you do that, it doesn’t give people time to think of why you belong in their network long-term and how they could help you find what you want. People like to do that.
2. Even if you seem overly enthusiastic about unlikely opportunities for people, mention them anyway
I suppose you shouldn’t be too weird about this (I think I can be sometimes), but you ought to tell people about cool stuff they should look into. Mention jobs you saw posted, talk about funding opportunities, tell people about scholarships you saw listed, and discuss volunteer positions that are good learning opportunities. You have no idea who’s going to follow up with you, and how unforgettably useful it could be to them. Be boldly helpful and keen to share information.
3. Introduce people to each other who will benefit from meeting and explain why
When you introduce people to each other, do so with an idea of what they might find interesting about each other’s professional context or interests. Did someone mention that they would like to learn about gender mainstreaming? Introduce them to the gender analysis expert you met last week and mention something they can talk about, like a challenge one of them faced recently. Or, are you at student vegan potluck, drinking wine out of a mason jar, talking to someone who’s writing a paper on the restructuring of CIDA into DFATD for class and to send to The Undercurrent? Introduce them to a friend who attended the DFATD session at the UTSC International Development Conference and be the life of the party.
4. You can always offer your network, if you can think of nothing else
Write down the full name and organizations of people you meet if they don’t have business cards, and ask them if they’d like you to add them on LinkedIn so they’re not surprised at the request. People are excited when someone is interested in them in a non-creepy way. Send a follow up email or message after meeting, and reference your favorite part of the conversation you had with them. You’ve probably interned, volunteered, or worked places that interest other people, or at least you’re going to get a neat job-thing soon, and people will be glad to know you.
5. Steer conversation towards offers and then say YES to them
When you meet new people, ask a lot of questions and express a lot of interest. Don’t over do it if you’re faking it, but if they’re in International Development and so are you, be interested. There is no real way to get a handle on what this field actually is except through first hand stories. As well, eventually, people start to naturally offer opportunities to you. They will say, “you could come by my office sometime to see some logframe analysis in action,” or even, “you should volunteer at this one cool thing with me.” How should you respond?
SAY YES. Always, yes. And then get their full name, organization, and two kinds of contact info. You follow up. Reschedule only if they ask to, or if you get malaria. Then, go with them, and have a good time. Under no circumstances are you allowed to be disinterested or have a bad time, even if you puke under the heat of a dry-season sun because you’re hung over. Just laugh it off and be awesome. This is how you build a network, make lasting positive impressions, and live an unforgettable life that turns into the makings of a career.
This tip is my personal favorite because refining this ‘technique’ landed me on the coolest trip driving for a sailing race around Lake Malawi, and also gave me a chance to find very rewarding additional volunteer opportunities to supplement my original internship, which didn’t actually need me full time.
6. Try to use LinkedIn to support your real-life network, even if recruiters might not be looking for you
It’s an incredible tool, especially if you’re keeping track of an international network, which you will be. Even if you don’t stay in International Development, so many of your classmates will work all over the place. You will look for a job one day, and one of your friends will work for that NGO, or some oil company’s CSR department. If they don’t, they will know someone who does. LinkedIn tells you that stuff and so its value builds over time. Alternatively, great people might contact you through it and invite you to cool professional events, which happened to me last week! Follow The Undercurrent on LinkedIn here — we’ll post things. Here are some things things you should NOT do with LinkedIn, however.
7. Last but not least, ALWAYS put your full name on your nametags
I recently went to an International Development networking event at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. I wrote my full name on a nametag and stuck it on my blazer. Many people just had their first names, and I didn’t really know who anyone was. Only a few minutes after I arrived, someone came up to me and asked if I had worked in Malawi. Turns out she’d read an obscure report I’d written for an organization we both volunteer for and had actually followed up on some of the recommendations from it. AMAZING. I would never have known this without my full name visible, and we’d never have met.
It’s worth being conscious about networking because you never know who will have something to offer you at a time when you need it the most and, more importantly, you have only just begun to realize how much you truly have to offer others.