Hello. My name’s Erika Lucas and I’m a writer who specialises in helping companies spread the word about the good work they are doing for their clients.

Do not adjust your set. You are reading the Cezanne HR blog. This is just me practising the ‘introduce yourself with impact’ techniques I learnt at an event on career networking last night.

Going by the large number of HR folk who piled into the room to hear best-selling author Heather Townsend, career networking is a pretty hot topic at the moment.

Much of the discussion about what HR needs to look like in 2012 centres around the need for practitioners to develop a more active external focus. There’s a widely held view that networking needs to become a key skill for HR. It’s a technique that will help them seek out and share best practice, benchmark their activity and add a fresh edge to their work.

Let’s be honest though. Career networking is one of those things we all know we have to do if we want to advance our career/grow our business/extend our influence – but quite frankly most of us would rather pull our fingernails out than enter a room full of strangers clutching a handful of business cards in our sweaty palms.

Thanks to the advent of social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter, it’s all got so much more complicated now too. Is it better to network on-line or off-line? Is it OK to approach people ‘cold’ on LinkedIn? How do you move an on-line relationship into a meaningful face to face dialogue?

These are all questions Heather Townsend, author of the Financial Times Business Networking Guide, tackled last night in a fun-filled session that had us looking for George Clooney and trying to spot pink cars (you’ll have to read to the end to find out).

The key point she was trying to convey is that most of us are pretty directionless when it comes to our networking activity. We tip up at events without having done any research beforehand about who’s likely to be there and without giving any thought as to who we’d specifically like to meet. We knock back a few glasses of warm white wine, exchange some pleasantries, hand out the odd business card – and probably never make contact with the people we’ve met again.

A more strategic approach to career networking is likely to be much more fruitful, especially now that social media is included in the mix. It should be about identifying the people who matter, working out where to find them and thinking about how to build productive, two-way relationships that will help us meet our goals, whatever they might be.

These are some of the top tips I took away from Heather’s presentation:

  • Identify your networking goal: What is it you actually want to achieve from your networking activity (i.e. strengthen your personal brand, get new ideas and inspiration for your HR practice, set up your own HR consultancy by 2013?). If you have a clear goal, you are more likely to prioritise networking and make time for it amongst all the other conflicting demands on your time.
  • Think about who you already know: Who is in your existing network that could help you achieve that goal? Ex colleagues, ex clients, friends, family? Put it down on paper and you’ll be surprised at how much reach you already have.
  • Map your network: Think about the type of people you need to meet to help you achieve your goals. Break them down into hubs and start to put some specific names in the frame.
  • Prioritise your contacts: Break your contacts down into A, B and C listers. A listers are people who can help you achieve your goal in the short-medium term. C listers are unlikely to be able to help you achieve your goal. The B list is the place for people who may be able to help you, but you’re not quite sure yet where they tie in. Spend most of your time cultivating relationships with your A listers, but keep the C listers warm as you never know where they might turn up if their circumstances change.
  • Plan your career networking activity: Look at your map and decide where you need to go to meet your key people. At events run by your professional association? At conferences covering your specialist area? In discussion groups on LinkedIn? Put the research in beforehand. Who’s going to be there? What are they interested in?
  • Follow up: Failure to follow-up is one of the biggest networking crimes. Touch base with the people you’ve met within 24-48 hours. Invite them to connect with you on LinkedIn or follow you on Twitter or at the very least send a quick email saying it was nice to meet them.
  • Deepen the relationship: Make plans to deepen the relationship with your A listers. Send them a useful article, invite them for a quick coffee or arrange to meet for lunch. Put a note in your diary to prompt you to make contact. You need to work on relationships in order to build trust so that people are willing to give you the help you need.
  • Get the balance right: You should be spending 80 per cent of the time you devote to career networking on building existing relationships and 20 per cent of the time making new ones. Most people do it the other way round.
  • Identify your ‘George Clooney’ (the person you really want to meet who can take you to your networking nirvana). Think about what you really want to ask that person for (your pink car, or whatever parallel works for you!).

This all adds up to the FITTER process for networking, which I’ll be making my mantra from now on:

  • F – Follow Up
  • I – Introduce yourself with impact
  • T – Target specific people
  • T – Turn social conversation into business chat
  • E – Engage
  • R – Research

Good luck with your future career networking activity – and if I’m on your A list, do get in touch!

Courtesy of Heather Townsend, Guide to Business Networking: How to Use the Power of Online and Offline Networking for Business Success, Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2011

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.