“It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” You’ve probably been hearing that old cliche ever since you got your first job flipping burgers at age sixteen. It may be frustrating to think about, since ideally hard work would trump everything, right? Well, maybe, but it’s natural for people to want to do business with known entities. The trick is doing everything you can to turn yourself into one of those known entities through the power of networking. You don’t have to feel sleazy about it, either.
This is one of the more obvious pieces of advice, but a lot of people just don’t do it. They go to work and then go straight home. That’s an understandable impulse, but if your office is sponsoring a meet-and-greet at the local chamber of commerce, for instance, it’s a good idea to take a few business cards and stop by for a bit. You don’t have to stay for the whole thing, but you want to make yourself visible to the business community at large. Just introduce yourself and talk to people like you’re at a friend’s house party. Try to sound as relaxed as possible. Don’t worry about being too formal, but don’t be too casual either. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but it’s definitely possible. A firm, strong handshake goes a long way. A little eye contact is good as well, but don’t stare too long.
You should also look beyond the city where you live and work. If you’ve never attended a trade show or other convention that’s related to your job, then now is a great time to start. You can look online for lists of regional and national trade shows. Think strategically. Have you always wanted to visit Miami? Well, maybe there’s an event of interest in South Florida. No, you aren’t going there on a pleasure trip, but you might still be able to visit a beach or two after you’ve completed your schmoozing for the day. If you do your research and pitch things properly, you can even get your company to pay for all or part of the trip. Be flexible whenever possible. If your company specializes in drain inspections in Pittsburgh, you probably have a better chance of being sent to a plumbing trade show in Cleveland rather than one in Phoenix. Sure, it’s nice if you can go to a sunnier climate in the middle of January, but it’s not essential. Getting your name and business card out there is more important.
Find a Mentor
If you’ve worked in your current field for five or ten years, you may feel silly seeking out a mentor. You’re probably thinking something like “Shouldn’t I know my way around things by now?” But there’s always someone with more experience and wisdom than you. You can always find someone who can help you learn more about your particular industry. It might be Terry down the hall, or it could be someone in another town or state. Asking someone to mentor you is a tricky thing. When you meet someone who you think fits the bill, try dropping some hints about how you’d love to pick their brain over coffee sometime. They may say, “Sure, that’s great! Here’s my number!” Or they may say, “Well, I’m pretty busy right now.” If they act cold, don’t take it personally. Just move on.
Even if you don’t find a mentor, you may very well find a peer in your industry, one who would love to talk shop with you sometimes. That’s also pretty valuable. Sure, you may have the same experience level, but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn something. Everyone has a unique perspective to offer, as long as you’re willing to listen. Some relationships will be more fruitful than others, but even if a connection doesn’t quite work out the way you hoped, at least you can say you gave it your best. And you never know: a relationship that fizzles out now could be your key to landing a major account in a year or two. You never know when a personal relationship will pay off.