To many people, the word networking is panic-inducing...
But I promise you that by understanding the fundamentals of what it is, how it can help your career and clearing up misconceptions that people mistakenly take as truth, you will feel more comfortable with the entire notion of it.
The most important thing you can do for your career is shift your mindset about networking from fear and anxiety to confidence and understanding. And that’s exactly what this lesson will help you to do.
NETWORK VS NETWORKING
Before we get started and for the purposes of this lesson, it’s important to note the difference between a network and networking…just to make sure we’re on the same page.
A network is an informal group of people with a focus on building relationships, both inside and outside of your organizations.
Building relationships through a vast and diverse network can impact your advancement in positive ways. As we all know, the people with the most successful careers usually have the largest and most influential networks. Your fashion career should be no different.
On the other hand, networking is building relationships with both the people you know and the people they know.
It’s about establishing and nurturing long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with the people you meet with the goal of it leading to mentoring, professional development, promotions or even career opportunities.
Networking is really just talking about your industry and building meaningful long-term relationships with people, which often includes friends and contacts in your network plus friends and contacts in their network.
Picture your extended network like this:
You’re at the center of it, then surrounding you are the people that make up your network – those closest to you. And around each of them are the people that know and make up their network.
You have the opportunity to connect with the friends of friends of friends for as far back as you want!
Now imagine this at a massive scale. The more people you add to your network, the larger your extended network will also become and the more extensive your reach will be.
THE BENEFITS OF NETWORKING
BUILD CONFIDENCE & IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
But why would you need to grow a network to be that large? What if you’re an introvert who at this very moment is thinking, “NOPE…I definitely don’t need to know that many people in my life”
I’ve got news for you, my friend. This has nothing to do with being introverted or extroverted and EVERYTHING to do with your career.
After a while of continually putting yourself out there and meeting new people, you’ll find that it does get easier over time. Networking makes you step outside your comfort zone and helps you build invaluable social skills and self-confidence that will benefit your career for the rest of your life, no matter where you are or what level of experience you’ve reached. The more you network, the more you’ll improve your communication skill set and learn to form lasting industry connections.
KEEP A PULSE ON THE JOB MARKET
Another benefit of networking is that it’ll give you an opportunity to keep a pulse on the job market. Many times, there are jobs available that aren’t posted and never make it to people outside of a specific network. This is where having valuable contacts helps tremendously.
Other times, after speaking with you and getting to know your experience and skill sets better, a contact with hiring power could decide to create a position solely for you.
It doesn’t happen often, but it isn’t unheard of to have a position made for you based on what you can bring to the company.
After my internship at Ralph Lauren, my direct boss was so impressed with my work that she spoke to HR about finding me a job. At the time, none were available so they decided to take matters into their own hands. It took them 3 months to envision, create and sign off on a position made specifically for me.
During my internship, I didn’t realize that team outings and company events were technically networking, but I made sure to go to all of them. This is where I continually expressed my desire to work for the company and become a member of the team.
I didn’t know it then, but between the work they saw I was capable of and the affinity I had for not only the company, but for my colleagues – I made it easier for them to consider me part of the team and it helped considerably when I graduated and was offered my very own role within the company.
MEET A POTENTIAL CAREER MENTOR
Networking can also give you the possibility to meet a mentor that can change your professional life. Guidance from a trusted mentor at any point in your career can not only help instill confidence, but can also help expand your network and drastically improve your chances of earning promotions and higher pay.
As your professional circle grows, you’re gonna start meeting people who impress you with their accomplishments and trajectory. Gravitate towards those people and learn from them. As you get to know them, you will witness aspects of their work ethic and decision making skills. Take notes on how to incorporate these into your own career.
Try to set up informational meetings with as many potential mentors as possible. If you’re able to get them, be sure to ask thoughtful questions – meaning, avoid anything you can get answers to on Google, be respectful of their time and see if they’d be willing to be your professional mentor.
Don’t be discouraged if they don’t accept. Remember that they are busy and may not have the ability to provide the time you need to learn or the time they need in order to advise.
If you’re able to get a mentor at any point in your career, attend as many events as they invite you to, speak to as many people as they introduce you to and always listen and learn. Not everyone has this opportunity so treat it as the gem that it is
GET SUPPORT FROM HIGH PROFILE PROFESSIONALS
Whether with a mentor or on your own, meeting high profile professionals is another benefit of networking. As you build these relationships, you may start to see that you receive more and more support from them.
This can be by way of introductions to people in your direct industry who can bring a positive impact to your career, through guidance to help you manage your challenges effectively or through financial support for a specific project or idea.
Remember the visual I mentioned at the start of this lesson – you are at the center and all of the people you meet are layered around you and around each of them are their own circles and contacts that over time, can become your own. These circles are ongoing and can benefit you and your professional career for as long as you nurture them.
DEVELOP LONG-LASTING FRIENDSHIPS
While networking is about building professional connections, you have to keep in mind that these relationships you’re building are with people who have similar goals, interests and are like-minded. Over time, it’s a natural evolution to go from business relationship to personal friendship with certain contacts.
The reality is, depending on your niche, you will see these people at events and possibly even work with them on projects time and time again.
You’ll start to form stories and anecdotes that link you to the person, helping to form a bond that goes beyond just networking contacts. And that’s ok. Some of my closest friends were once colleagues or direct reports, though the relationship did get stronger once we weren’t working together.
There are so many benefits that can come from networking effectively. The trick is to approach it in a meaningful way – do your research, show up, provide value, build your network and nurture it over time.
MISCONCEPTION #1: NETWORKING MEANS ASKING FOR FAVORS
Believe it or not, even though this may seem like common sense, there are way too many people that still don’t understand this. It’s imperative that your mindset going into any networking event or situation should never be to solely ask for favors.
Instead, you need to approach these meetings and professional events the same way you would any other non-professional event in your life. You wouldn’t show up to a friend’s party, get introduced to their friends and immediately ask for something from them, would you?
That same logic goes for any networking events or professional meetings where you’re relatively new and being introduced to people for the first time.
Networking gives you the opportunity to connect with others and build mutually beneficial professional relationships, but this can only happen once a professional relationship has been established, which can only happen with time and communication.
It’s all very circular and does not happen overnight.
This doesn’t mean however, that you can never ask for a favor. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask for assistance when you need it. Just make sure to craft those “I need a favor” emails or conversations with extra tact before sending or approaching the situation.
Give the person you are requesting help from all of the tools and information they may need in order to make your request as clear and comprehensive as possible.
This allows the person the opportunity to provide exactly what you need while also saving them time that they would be spending on trying to figure out what it is you’re asking for.
MISCONCEPTION #2: NETWORKING IS BEING THE MOST OUTGOING PERSON
This is so far from the truth, especially if it means forcing yourself to be someone you’re not.
While networking can be a bit uncomfortable or out of your comfort zone, this doesn’t mean that you should take on a different persona or force yourself to be the center of attention if this is not who you are at your core.
The point of networking is the exact opposite actually – it’s getting to know people and letting people know you, your business and your professional etiquette. Just like in most relationships in our lives, you’ll usually attract those you have most in common with and naturally grow the relationship from there. Which is why if you try to build a connection based on something or someone you’re not, people will see through it and you will come off as insincere or simply, you will come off as fake and the relationships around you will dissolve in time.
Personally, as an introverted extrovert and someone who has social anxiety, I will say that to this day – even after 20 years in this industry, I still get nervous before attending events, especially if I know I will be meeting lots of new people.
Add to this the after effects of a global pandemic.
I attended an industry event just a few days ago that had about 200 people in attendance. There were moments throughout the night where I needed to go outside or even to sit in the bathroom just to get away from the noise and the sensory overload. I needed time to recharge, to take a few deep breaths and then talk myself into getting back out there.
I felt an urgency to do this like nothing I’ve ever felt before and I realized it’s because my body had gotten used to being in quieter settings, definitely not around 200 people.
Always remember to be kind to yourself. If you need a few minutes of silence, find a place to get them. Perhaps you leave the event a little early and get extra sleep. The bottom line is, you know your body better than anyone else, so be sure to listen to it and give it what it needs. Getting into a habit of networking doesn’t mean that certain feelings suddenly go away. It’s actually the opposite – those feelings seem to be there in neon lights telling you to go home, away from the commotion.
Over time, you’ll know how to differentiate nerves from flat out fear. When you’re new to this and just starting out, your body will not want to attend ANY events or do ANY networking, especially if you’re an introvert. This is fear trying to take over. With practice, it’s this fear you will eventually do away with, leaving you with nerves that are totally normal and completely manageable.
For those of you that are still not convinced, I have a quick tip to help ease you into networking:
Put yourself out there virtually.
Be involved in groups, forums, discussions and social media circles. Why does this help? Well, by the time you meet people you’ve known virtually for a while, it’ll remove the awkwardness and you’ll feel that the relationship and your conversation will flow more freely. The added bonus to this is that it helps you practice putting yourself out there and meeting new people. The more you do this, the easier networking will be.
MISCONCEPTION #3: NETWORKING IS SOLELY DEFINED AS ATTENDING A SOCIAL EVENT
This is actually one of THE MOST common misconceptions about networking and the first thing most people think of when the word ‘networking’ even comes up.
In order to make this word less daunting or something that brings with it negative emotions, you have to approach it practically.
If you think about it, we network every day of our lives – whether it’s while sitting at the bleachers at your kid’s game, getting your nails done or waiting in line at the grocery store. Networking is simply a conversation that can be started virtually anywhere and it could lead to a potential connection that is helpful for your career.
At the same time, going to these networking events doesn’t necessarily mean you’re actually connecting. I once attended one where a person came over to my group while we were talking, handed out his cards, barely said 2 words and left. He approached us again, doing the exact same thing. When we called him out and told him he had already given us his card, he stared blankly and said he didn’t remember having given it to us.
Handing over business cards does NOT mean you are connecting with people. The first rule of networking is to interact, this is the only way that you’ll build relationships over time.
All that this man achieved was wasting money on business cards because he gave so many out without ever once taking the time to interact and build any sort of relationship with any of us.
If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we as a society are able to continue working and living in a world that doesn’t necessarily need in-person events; that we can still find a way to develop important relationships.
Establishing connections with people informally can actually be more valuable. By doing so, you have one-on-one interaction with the person, creating a more comfortable setting for honest conversation – neither one of you feels the need to exaggerate or to impress the other the way you may at a more formal networking event.
The main takeaway I want you to have from this particular misconception is that you don’t need to be in a formal setting in order to form a professional connection with a person. We can network every single day of our lives – and we should – to practice conversation and especially to master the art of listening and asking questions. Combined, these are the tools that will help you become a great networker and build a strong professional community.
MISCONCEPTION #4: NETWORKING IS SOMETHING YOU ONLY DO WHEN YOU’RE IN NEED OF A NEW JOB
There is a piece of advice I received from my mentor that I want to share with you. She once said to me, “Don’t wait until you’re ready for a new job to start looking. Keep your eyes open for opportunities and start looking while you’re at your happiest in your current job.”
I remember listening to her words and not understanding why she would advise this. Why would I look for a new job if I was happy at the one I currently had?
Her reasoning was that when you are happy in your career and your current position, you clearly know what you want out of a job, what you’re excited about and what drives you. These are the things you need to look for in your next professional step.
When you’re unhappy or worse – ready to leave a job – you almost become desperate and just apply for the sake of leaving your current situation. You don’t give your search the time and dedication that you should which could be detrimental to your career.
The same concept can be used for networking. If you’re connecting with people to find a new job or opportunity, your motives will be obvious. The person on the receiving end may feel that you are using them or worse yet, that you only care about what their position or their company could do for you.
In order to be a good networker, you have to take every opportunity to give to, and receive from, your network, at all times – whether you need help or not. Remember, networking is an essential, long-term business development tool. It takes time to nurture relationships, provide value when needed and ask the right questions.
Together, all of these tools will help you build strong, meaningful connections that can bring positive opportunities to your professional career.
IN THE END…
Networking is one of those things that people either love or hate to do. The good news is that NO ONE is automatically good at it. You have to crash and burn a lot before you actually get the hang of it and even start to enjoy it.
But it is important for you to remember that connections are everything in the fashion industry, so networking is something that you have to learn to accept into your life and resign yourself to practice until it doesn’t feel as nerve-wrecking. As you move up in your career, you will begin to see the same faces at functions and meetings, which does make it a whole lot easier.
Whether it’s virtually or in person, be sure to bring 2 important things with you: a positive attitude and a smile! These events aren’t easy to go through, especially at the start. But they ARE essential for your career and for the relationships you are building.
One final piece of advice: treat any networking events or opportunities as if they were your own party that you’re hosting.
Meaning: reframe your thoughts.
Stop concentrating on how awkward or anxious you feel and instead understand that everyone feels the same way. As a host, your job is to be inviting, so if you focus your energy on making your “guests” comfortable, you will take away your own discomfort, leaving you room to be the best version of yourself…and even make some new friends in the process.
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