Networking skills for students: How to build professional career relationships

Tips and tools to develop your personal brand and overcome your discomfort at networking.

Earlier this month, Dr Franz Wohlgezogen, Senior Lecturer in Management and Marketing, and Ms Anthea McCombe, People & Culture Business Partner, Grant Thornton Australia, hosted a Personal Effectiveness Program (PEP) Workshop for Melbourne Business School and Bachelor of Commerce students on how to get the most out of networking.

PERSONAL BRANDING

McCombe shared recommendations for how to design, build and manage your personal brand. The illustrated the importance of personal branding with a few celebrity examples: media personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Chris Hemsworth, or Zhang Yiyi have a professional publicist who manage their brand in social media and traditional media. While most of us cannot afford to hire someone full time to handle our personal brand, we can learn from the process and the principles of these professionals.

Who is your audience?
The critical first step, McCombe suggested, is to figure out which audience you want to appeal to. For celebrities, this usually means calibrating which gender, age group, and ethnicity they want to focus on – Oprah’s brand, for example, has often focused on African American women in their 30s and above. For students, audience focus means figuring out which industries, professions, and countries you want to appeal to.

feedback
Keep conversations open and appproach friends, classmates, colleagues and family to ask them what values they associate with you.

What qualities attract your audience?
Once you understand who your audience is, McCombe advised, students need to reflect which skills, strengths, and passions they want to design their brand around. Clearly these brand qualities need to be relevant to the target audience. And they need to be readily recognizable and anchored in reality. Trying to build a personal brand based on fantasy, that is detached from actual life experience and track record is usually a losing game. McCombe recognized that identifying your unique personal qualities is a difficult task. “Self-awareness is key – this mean knowing your strengths and your development needs. You need to understand yourself before you can build your personal brand.” She suggested that asking friends and family, or peers and colleagues for feedback can enhance your self-awareness, and to help you better understand what qualities and values people associate with you.

How do you communicate your brand?
The next step for personal branding is to communicate your brand to your audience - one default channel for this is LinkedIn. McCombe provided some hands-on tips for setting up a compelling LinkedIn profile and critiqued a number of example profiles on LinkedIn. McCombe urged the workshop participants to invest some quality time for crafting a clear and compelling profile headline, and a concise profile summary. “Be aware of the language that is used in the industry you are interested in. Include keywords and competencies that you see in job advertisement and position descriptions. Using that kind language in your profile summary or headline makes it easier for hiring managers from that industry to notice you.”

NETWORKING

Having a LinkedIn profile is helpful, but it is not enough. Wohlgezogen discussed how to prepare for and engage in networking events. These events often make people uncomfortable. Wohlgezogen noted that this is completely normal. Networking events are designed to artificially accelerate building relationships and making connections that would not emerge naturally otherwise. This pushes most people beyond their comfort zone and can create anxiety. “Putting yourself out there is risky. You worry that you’re making a fool of yourself in front of people who could have the power to give you a job,” he acknowledged.

Wohlgezogen explained that the main problem with such anxiety is that it tends to focus people’s attention on themselves. They become highly self-conscious, overthink everything they do and say in the company of others, and focus all their energy and effort on appearing favorably. According to Wohlgezogen, this violates the cardinal rule of networking: “It’s not about you, it’s about them. It’s not about presenting or promoting yourself. It’s about connecting with and getting to know others.”

Networking Due Diligence
One practical strategy to reduce that anxiety, Wohlgezogen suggested, is doing some solid due diligence before a networking event. Researching background information about key people at the event, recent announcements by the companies they represent, and current events in their industries, gives you material for conversation starters. The idea is to identify topics that could be relevant and interesting both for the people you meet and for you. That way, you can initiate a connection based on a shared interest – which is often easier than starting off with a conversation about you and your personal qualities.

At some stage, though, you want to turn a conversation toward the topic of “you”. Wohlgezogen suggested students think about how they would respond - in a compelling and concise way -  to three key questions: Who are you? What’s going on in your professional/student life right now? What do you want? While your responses to these questions should not sound too scripted or too rehearsed, it is usually a good idea to give them some thought in advance to avoid a stammering, improvised reply.

Manage your Expectations
The second strategy is to actively manage your expectations and your attitude before you engage in a networking event. Wohlgezogen suggested that many people, especially students, experience an emotional roller coaster: they form extremely high hopes about what they’ll get out of a networking event, and when those hopes are disappointed they’ll blame themselves and think they are terrible at networking. The trick is to manage your own expectations. Rather than expecting yourself to appear outstandingly likable and competent to the people you interact with – an unrealistic expectation – aim for being just likable and competent enough – a target that is easily within reach.

Wohlgezogen recommended auto-suggestion or self-talk techniques that help putting yourself in a positive emotional state. Deliberately focusing your mind on friends and family members you have strong positive relationships with, remembering your accomplishments and aspects of your life you can be grateful for, and priming yourself with curiosity about what interesting people and ideas you may encounter at the event can reinforce a positive attitude and push aside fears and anxieties that may hold you back from connecting with people. “It is impossible to predict what kind of person people at a networking event are interested in and what qualities exactly they are looking for. But one of the few qualities that is nearly universally liked and appreciated is positive energy.”

networking
Always look professional, be polite and friendly.

Development opportunities are offered to Bachelor of Commerce and Melbourne Business School students by the Student Employment and Enrichment team. To view more sessions like this, visit the PEP webpage. Registrations are essential.

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