The Crucial Thing That Could Propel Your Career (That You're Probably Not Doing)

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They say it's all about who you know, and when it comes to your job, the right person could be key in seizing your next opportunity. Every connection presents a new possibility (either now or in the future), and you can network your way to a successful career if you take the time to create and build your professional relationships.

Think of networking as a type of investment; no matter who you meet, at any level, you never know who can help you down the road. "Having a growing and engaged network is very important in establishing career success," says Jennifer Brick, a career success coach at Capdeca Solutions. "It's possible to navigate your career with a small network, however many more doors will open for you as you grow an engaged network."

Ahead, hear from Brick as well as female entrepreneurs who say that networking helped get them to where they are today. Whether building your connections online or in person, these experts share tips on how to network like a pro, based on personal experience. From standing out from the crowd, to maintaining meaningful connections, to avoiding those awkward interactions, these women know what works — because they've been there, too.

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Use The Internet — The Right Way

Online communication has a reputation for being impersonal, but if done right, it's a great method for connecting with professionals you may otherwise never meet.

Catharine Dockery, founder of the venture capital fund, Vice Ventures, says the success of her company was dependent on her networking efforts — many of which were conducted online. "A lot of people will tell you that the best way to network is through warm introductions (meaning getting an intro from someone who is connected to the person you're trying to meet)," she says. "I disagree with that. I've found the most efficient way to connect with someone new is by sending a cold email to that person; the email must be respectful and clearly explain why you're looking to connect."

Try cold emails: Turns out, cold emails are a tried-and-true method for lots of businesswomen, but there's a catch; it must be done right. "We’re big believers in the cold email or DM," say Kate Miller and Anna Duckworth, co-founders of Miss Grass, a cannabis product company. "But so few people do the cold email well, so when you hit the right chord with that, you’d be surprised who will take a breakfast." As far as being on the receiving end, "when someone makes a real effort to connect, has done their homework, has a really clear ask, and isn’t just asking to 'pick our brains,' we always try to pay the favor forward," they say.

Interact on social media: Try using social media to connect with others in your industry, especially on more professional platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. "LinkedIn is under-leveraged as a networking tool and as a medium to broadcast your expertise," says Brick. "When you're trying to network with successful women you admire, don't email with asks for help or mentorship as a way of introduction; instead, begin following them and participating in the conversations they begin."

Do not (repeat: do not) just ask someone to be your mentor: On that note, Brick gives a warning. "Do not send any of those 'will you be my mentor?' emails (and don't ask upon meeting them, either)," she advises. "Asking for mentorship is asking [a potential connection] to personally and professionally invest in you, and you just met them. It's the equivalent of walking up to someone in a bar and asking them to go home with you — it usually weirds people out, and if it does work, there is a strong likelihood that it's not going to be a long-term relationship."

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Be Prepared When Networking In Person

When given the opportunity, face-to-face networking is a wonderful way to meet industry peers and leaders nearby while presenting an opportunity to really make an impression. But to make your meetings as efficient (and unforced) as possible, remember that a little preparation can go a long way. "In-person networking events are much easier when you do pre-work," says Brick. "If there are any channels or hashtags you can interact on, see who is attending prior to the event. Do research on who is attending, tweet them or send them a LinkedIn message or connection request, and let them know you'd like to meet them."

Research who you want to connect with: "Think of in-person networking like a first date," say Miller and Duckworth. "If you know who you’ll be meeting with ahead of time, do a quick Google and LinkedIn search to brush up on what they’ve done, their hobbies, interests, volunteer work, and mutual connections." The ladies assure that saying you scoped them out isn't weird in this situation. "Starting a conversation with 'I saw on your LinkedIn you know XYZ' is totally cool, especially at a networking event. We all creep and in this context, it shows you’ve got grit."

Plan some conversation starters. Afraid your introduction will be followed by crickets? Dockery recommends keeping up on current events (especially those relevant to your industry) in case you need to jumpstart a conversation. "Talking about the news is a great way to connect with people, and you sound intelligent doing so," she says. "I think it's important to have some headlines in your back pocket to discuss, just because it's an easy way to connect with someone and you never know who you'll end up meeting."

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Make Real Connections:

Yes, meeting fellow professionals, especially higher-level ones, can be intimidating. But remember that they're human, too, and the best way to forge a relationship is to build a real connection.

Mention their work: If there's someone you're intentionally seeking out, Shelley Sanders, co-founder of The Last Line, says there's no shame in expressing why you wanted to meet them (plus, the flattery never hurts). "If you're fan of a writer's work, mention their latest piece; if you know something about a founder's business that's timely, mention it," she suggests.

Utilize mutual contacts: Further, she recommends enlisting the help of your current contacts in order to make new ones. "Don't be afraid to ask for an introduction," she says. "I think people are more apt to help when they have a little familiarity."

Remember that networking goes both ways: You may be tapping the shoulders of senior-level execs, but remember that networking goes both ways. Ask yourself: What can you do for them? "If you want someone to help you, you need to help them first," Brick points out. That said, "do not help someone and expect them to help you in return. When your motivation is selfish other people feel it and it corrodes trust."

If you're unsure what you can offer, "think about what assets and professional attributes you share during a job interview, and how those selling points might benefit your prospective employer," advise Miller and Duckworth. "For example, are you passionate about content creators and know who’s up and coming in an industry? Or do know what apps Gen Z and beyond are drawn to these days? Offering new and creative ways of thinking and a fresh perspective is seen as invaluable by a senior-level employee."

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Follow-Up & Stay In Touch

The experts agree that post-meeting follow-ups — and in particular, thanking your new connections — is essential for solidifying your network and making yourself memorable. "Most professionals don't maintain contact, which makes it awkward when you do want to ask for their assistance, say for a job referral," says Brick. "Make a point of sending at least one message a day to someone in your network to maintain those relationships and continue to grow them."

Send a thank-you note: "Always thank the person you met with for their time, even if they're less senior than you, and make sure to follow up within 24 hours," says Dockery.

And, it doesn't have to be anything fancy. "This can be a simple email note," say Miller and Duckworth. "Be sure to mention some things you talked about in your meeting to jog their memory and serve as a longer-term reference point, should they search for your email in the future."

Share professional updates: Sanders notes that if a connection has helped you in any way, be sure to let them know. For instance, "if someone provided an introduction for a job, share an update to that person so they know you took it and what the outcome was," she says. After all, who wouldn't want to hear that they were able to make a difference?

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