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How many times have you received a business card at a networking event but not followed up these connections with an email?

Alternatively, have you engaged with someone during an online forum but not connected on social media to further cement the relationship?

What about attending a national association meeting but omitting to contact the person you met who is a member of your local industry branch?

Well don’t worry; you are not alone. Research suggests that few of us follow up business connections made when networking which begs the question, why do people join organisations or attend the events in the first place?

What is networking?

Networking is defined as “an individuals attempt to develop and maintain relationships with others who have the potential to assist them in their work or career."

To consciously engage in this type of interaction can feel unnatural, which is why many of us feel awkward about it.

However, avoiding networking is not the answer if you want to get ahead in the workplace. According to research, networking is invaluable to career growth. Some estimates suggest that up to 85% of all jobs are filled via networking.

Although all the evidence proves that networking is good for your career, it’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most people.

In fact, starting a conversation with a stranger at a conference or asking a question during an online event incites outright dread for many! And surprisingly, HR professionals can be some of the worst offenders.

According to Barbra Carlisle, a leadership coach with extensive business experience, many people professionals are so busy helping others to get ahead in the workplace they often neglect their own careers.

Whether this is due to low confidence or a lack of engagement in their own development, Barbra believes that HR practitioners are not grabbing the many opportunities for networking that exist, particularly when organisations are going through a transition.

A skill anyone can learn

If the age-old adage: ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ has never been more accurate, how can we foster those genuine connections which will be invaluable to our HR or L&D career?

The good news is that networking is a skill that anyone can learn. You don’t need to be a smooth operator or an extrovert to be successful, you just need to use the right strategies.

Barbra recommends dividing networking into internal and external opportunities. Internal networking, she explains, has become more difficult since the pandemic as increasing numbers of professionals work remotely, but there are still ways to develop those important networks.

In many progressive businesses, there is not a clear route for advancement. Much depends on being in the right place at the right time. I always encourage people professionals to speak up and not to be afraid of talking about their ambitions or what they are looking for in a future role.

Promote your capabilities

Think outside of HR and challenge yourself to make a new connection or look out for internal mentoring programmes. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with the chief finance officer or whoever inspires you in your organisation and make that connection.

Be proud of what you are good at and promote your capabilities. Take on a stretch role for a few months. It might mean that you work slightly longer hours, but it will be great for your CV

While creating professional relationships internally might be more challenging now compared to pre-2020, there is a plethora of external networking opportunities.

There are so many events from formal sit downs to informal freebies at local or national level, virtual or face-to-face meetings, evening or morning get togethers, open to all or gender specific.

I would advise people professionals to start with the CIPD which offers events at local and national level. Join your local branch and simply get involved. Coming up, the CIPD has a national Festival of Work conference for two days in June. It’s free to go and you can network at workshops or with exhibitors.

5 key ways to be an effective networker

Whether we like it or not, networking is important which means we need to know how to do it well. There are lots of different angles to consider, so to help you on your way, we have put together a five-step plan to building and maintaining professional relationships.

Step 1: Have a plan

At the beginning of any new learning journey, it’s always important to have a plan on who, what, where, why, when and how. Start by asking yourself:

  • What are your expectations of networking?

  • Do you want your networking efforts to lead to a different role, a promotion or even a new career?

  • Do you want to expand your knowledge by linking with industry experts?

  • Do you want a mix of both?

Use this list before signing-up for any online or face-to-face networking opportunity so you know exactly why you are going and what you want to get out of each event.

Step 2 : Be kind to yourself

We know that many of us don’t enjoy networking so try and choose an occasion where you will feel comfortable for your first event.

  • Start with a small group of like-minded professionals from the same sector, a lunchtime workshop, for example.

  • Do your homework and try to get a list of attendees before going to an event so you can research the people you would most like to meet.

  • Challenge yourself and know why you are going but don’t attend thinking you have to talk to everyone. Experts suggest that three productive conversations in a two-hour networking period is a good result.

  • Think about what you’ll say and listen to the responses.

  • Know how to end a conversation by exchanging business cards to signal the discussion is coming to a close and add that you are looking forward to keeping in touch.

Step 3: Add value to your contacts

Remember successful networking is a two-way street so you need to add value to the relationship...

Share materials that you have found useful with others and try to stimulate a debate.

  • Offer to collaborate where there is a common interest. Could you run a lunchtime learning session with others from your local CIPD branch, for example?

  • Celebrate your success and the achievements of others. If you have led a great workshop, post about it on LinkedIn. Congratulate your contacts when they promote their good news.

  • Share and like announcements that your contacts post when it is of interest to your audiences.

  • Lay the groundwork for developing continued professional relationships by meeting for a coffee or lunch to prove that you are serious about staying in touch.

  • If asked, put in a good word about one of your connections to other professionals. They will hopefully do this for you and who knows where this could lead.

Step 4: Always follow up if you want to maintain good relationships

Whatever you do, wherever you go and however you meet your professional contacts, one of the key recommendations to successful networking is to follow up and be authentic.

  • Don’t procrastinate but be proactive and follow up your contacts as soon as possible with an email.

  • Be organised - keep a brief note of your networking conversations so you can refer to them when you are making contact.

  • Connect with the people you meet on LinkedIn and Twitter. Check out their profiles, tweets and websites for useful background information about their work and views.

  • Look out for any new posts from your contacts that you can share with your network.

  • Make it easy for new connections to follow you. Pop your contact details in a chat box when attending an online event and say you would like to connect with others.

Step 5: Be creative and curious

Be curious about those you meet. The good news is most people love to talk about themselves so if you ask your new connections lots of questions, they will enjoy the interaction.

If you know who you want to meet before an event, do some research about their professional background.

Expressing genuine curiosity will allow the conversation to flow more smoothly than stilted small talk.

Be creative about seeking out new opportunities at work to increase your networks. Be immersed as an integral part of your organisation. Become involved in company-wide projects. Ian Nicholas, Global Managing Director at Reed advises:

Think wider when considering your general development. Gaining wider operational and commercial experience is going to help any future career within HR, as will any role involving people management. Undertaking such options will help, rather than hinder your longer-term career in HR.

The most successful networkers are those who have gained greater visibility in their profession by discussing and sharing their ideas over time with a whole range of people including old acquaintances. Could you make more of the connections you already have both inside and outside of work?

Be reflective. Networking takes time to get right so it is important to consider what went well or what you could do differently at a future event whether it’s online or in person.