April 01, 2009 The April / May issue of St. Charles Business Magazine includes a feature article written by Lauren Kolbe, founder of Kolbeco. The article, titled “Networking for the Long Haul,” discusses tips and strategies for networking in today’s world. The full text of the article follows:

Networking for the Long Haul

It seems that the news today is filled with advice about job hunting and expanding business opportunities. At the top of every list, you find one simple word – networking! But what does it mean to network in an effective manner? Three key components lie at the heart of the matter: getting involved in the right places, knowing what to do when you “get there,” and maintaining your network for the long haul.

The Right Places
To paraphrase a saying that a good friend and client of mine relays all the time … the good news is that there are hundreds of groups and organizations that call our area home. The bad news is that there are hundreds of organizations that call the area home. So where do you start, and how to you choose where to spend your time?
Consider the following simple, yet soul-searching questions to help narrow down your options:

What do I feel strongly about? Look for organizations, professional or community focused in nature, whose mission and activities you can put your whole heart into.

Where do I feel I can grow, both personally and professionally? There is always something in life to be learned every day.

How much time do I have to commit? Don’t get involved in an organization in name only. This means prioritizing and choosing only the organizations you truly have the time for.

What does a network really mean to me? Determine what your goals are in your networking activities, and what type of network you hope to build.

Once you truly have the answers to the above questions, you’ll be able to uncover the options that are the best match for you, where you can make a positive impact, align with the right kind of people, and through your presence or work, begin to build a higher profile for yourself within the network of (and in many cases, beyond) that organization.

There are several online resources and print publications that feature calendars of upcoming events. In addition, most organizations are actively prospecting into their target markets to attract new members. Finally, talk to your friends. What organizations do they belong to?

Finally, do your homework. Scour the websites of the groups you are considering, call to ask questions, and when possible, talk to others you know who are involved. Ask things like:

How many members are involved?
What is your mission?
How often are events, and what is the purpose?
What types of companies and individuals are members?
Are there opportunities to get more involved?

At the Event
Most people cower at the thought of walking into a new environment with a room full of strangers. Look at it, however, as a fresh opportunity. Your first point of contact will likely be a registration table. If you’re new to the organization, tell the person at the table and they’ll likely point you in the direction of board members, ambassadors, or long-time members that can help you get acquainted. Also remember that no one is a stranger. We live in a “big, small town” and chances are that you know someone in the group.

Whether you’re new to, or a veteran of, an organization, some things to remember when you’re at any networking function:

Wear your nametag. It helps people to identify with you quickly, and doesn’t cause the pressure of having to remember everyone’s name.
Don’t be pushy. Be conscious of others’ space, and be polite in conversation. You’d be surprised at how many people will barge into a conversation with a sales pitch and a business card. No one is going to hire you or suddenly have a need for your business within 90 seconds of meeting you.
Ask questions. People are typically flattered when you show an interest in what they do, how their day is going, how business is, etc. You’ll also find that you may have things, people and places in common with the person you’re speaking with.
Gather business cards. If possible, jot yourself a quick note on the card about the conversation you had with the person, or something memorable about them. This helps you to remember who you’ve met, and who they were. You never know when you’ll see them again, and they’ll be impressed that you asked how their son’s soccer season ended up!
Find out if there are opportunities for more involvement. Organizations, especially those with a volunteer staff, are always looking for people to help. This helps you build a quick network within the organization and increases your visibility.

Build and Maintain your Network – Patience is a Virtue

You go to an event or two, meet some great people, and gather lots of business cards. You’re fast on your way to selling something or finding a new job through your newfound network, right? Wrong! Building a network is all about building relationships, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Trying to push this development into warp speed will not result in your desired outcome. You have to do it the old fashioned way, through hard work, a consistent level of participation, and treating others the way you want to be treated. Remember, you’re in this for the long haul – that’s why you carefully considered your options and chose an organization whose mission and values closely aligned with your own so that you could make an impact and become a visible figure.

Online, Social Networking
Today, we find ourselves in the age of great online social networking tools. Building a professional page on Facebook (keep the high school and college buddies separate, please), and creating stellar profiles on sites such as LinkedIn and Plaxo build your internet identity and can help you connect with new friends and old. These online tools allow you to bring your real-life world to a whole new realm, and open up networking possibilities you may have never dreamed possible.

Building your online network involves a simple search of the social media site’s members. Once you’ve found that a member of your real-life network has a profile, you may invite that person to link to you, thus establishing him or her as a part of your online network. You may also join groups within these social networks, allowing you to join conversations about topics or post answers to another member’s questions. You can become “known” relatively quickly online, so use your common sense, be polite, and be accurate and honest in your profile and posts, or else you will be called out!

Just as in real life, be sure to devote time to building your online identity on social networking sites. Let your network know what you’re doing, and keep them posted on projects, achievements, and events you’re involved with. This shows that you’re active, you’re capable, and you’re committed to whatever it is you have going on in your world.

Whether you are looking to connect in person, online or both, remember that networking is all about relationships. Treat others with respect, be sincere, and be patient and you’ll earn trust and respect. Finally, have fun with it. You’ll meet great new people, support a worthy cause, and grow both personally and professionally.

Lauren Kolbe is co-owner of Kolbeco, a Communications Agency ranked as one of the largest PR firms in the St. Louis area for the last three years. Lauren is a board member and past president of AMA St Louis.

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Community-Minded Big Thinkers / Misfit Marketers / Bringers of Confidence & Shine