8 Rules of Successful Networking Every Columbian Should Know

by Kate Lawler
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Whether you graduated from Columbia in 2015 or decades ago, you’re already a member of an active network of 320,000 alumni that will provide a lifetime of value if you take advantage of all it can offer. But what’s the best way to build and nurture those valuable personal and professional connections? To find out, we asked knowledgeable Columbians for their smartest advice on networking right now. 

1. Commit to it for the long run. Networking is not just a job-search tool. It’s about connecting with new people and maintaining relationships over the long term, and you need to make it a priority no matter where you are in your career. “It’s an uncertain time professionally for a lot of people, and you have to be prepared to reinvent yourself, regenerate your business, rethink what you’re up to, and deal with setbacks,” says attorney Brian Krisberg ’81CC, ’84LAW, a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin in New York City. Have a deep network in place and you’ll be poised to move to the next level in your company, expand your business, switch career paths, and, yes, find a new job when you need one. But before you start sending LinkedIn requests to everyone you know, take a step back and recognize that developing your network is a long-term project. Just like a good friendship, a professional relationship can’t be rushed. It takes time to develop mutual respect and to establish a level of trust. “Networking isn’t something that can be crammed like a school exam. You can’t call someone ten times a week and have it be as effective as calling that person ten times over the course of ten months,” points out career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine ’92BC, cofounder of SixFigureStart in New York City. Think first about what you want to achieve and then about who you need to meet. “You should develop a specific networking strategy,” says Rose Sterling, director of alumni career services at Columbia’s Center for Career Education. “Write down your long-term professional goals and then zero in on what kinds of contacts you need to fill out your network.” Focus on quality, not quantity. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they have so many connections that they can’t keep up,” says Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School. Be strategic as you build your contact list, and then touch base regularly with your key connections. Make it a goal to meet one or two people for coffee or lunch each month, and to regularly check in with others via e-mail or social media or by attending events. 

2. Be smart about social media. The Internet has transformed the way we connect with each other, so if you’re not using social media to your advantage, you should be. You can join networking groups on Facebook (there are 320 exclusively for Columbia alumni) and follow CEOs and other key players in your industry on Twitter. You should certainly be on LinkedIn, the career-networking website. There you can post your résumé, connect with other professionals, follow companies you’re interested in, search job listings, and join groups, including over two hundred Columbia alumni groups. (Although LinkedIn promotes a premium upgrade for a fee, our experts say the free basic profile offers ample services for most people.) Make sure you have a clear, professional, up-to-date photo on your profile. And when you send a LinkedIn request, change the default message on the invitation to a personal note. It’s smart to be discriminating about the LinkedIn requests you accept, since your connections are a reflection of your business reputation. And don’t worry: it’s fine to simply ignore requests from people you don’t want to connect with, say our experts. 

3. Don’t just connect with people senior to you. It’s a misperception that the only valuable connections are people in senior positions. “A new connection doesn’t have to hold a VP or CEO title,” says Sterling. “Make friends with everyone, because you never know what you’ll be able to learn from a person who’s at the same level or more junior to you.” Let’s say you’re in your forties and you want to invest in a new technology or build a website that showcases your work. A tech-savvy twentysomething in your network may be the best person to turn to for help. And when a colleague who works in your department moves on to another job, keep in touch. If he hears about a position at his new company, you might be the first person he calls. 

4. Join a professional group. Whether you’re a tech entrepreneur, an architect, or a teacher, there’s a professional association for you, and becoming a member is an excellent way to meet new people who work in your field. Once you are a member, be an active participant. Don’t just go to networking events — sign up for a conference or volunteer to serve on a committee. Consider joining Columbia’s alumni professional groups, too, such as the Columbia Venture Community.

If you find the idea of a networking event intimidating, remind yourself that everyone at the event is there for the same purpose: to make business connections in a low-stress environment. “If you go to an event where you don’t know anyone, that’s actually a good thing, because then you’re forced to talk to somebody and ask him or her to introduce you to other people,” says Iyengar. Try to make just a few real connections — the goal isn’t to work the room and meet as many people as you can, says Sterling. “In fact, you should narrow it down to four or five people. I always say, bring just ten business cards, so you’re more conscious of who you’re giving them to.” 

If you have a specific objective, make sure you have an “elevator speech” about yourself. “It’s very important to be able to crystallize your goal and explain it briefly,” says Iyengar. 

5. Rethink your idea of what a network is. Networks don’t have to be work-related. You’ve probably already built valuable networks outside your professional circle. Maybe you play in a local basketball league, sing in a choir, volunteer at a food co-op, or take a dance class. All of those groups are potential networks, and the people you meet there can become useful connections. “These people already have a shared interest with you, they’re rich with information, and they have their own contacts who aren’t connected to your industry,” says Ceniza-Levine. As a bonus, it probably doesn’t feel like work. “Actual networking events can be hard, but in this more relaxed setting it’s less awkward,” says Eric Horwitz ’90CC, head of the Career Coaches Network at the Columbia Alumni Association. The CAA sponsors nonprofessional shared-interest groups for singers, fiction writers, military veterans, and more. 

6. Always follow up. After you connect with someone, whether in a professional or nonprofessional setting, send that person a short e-mail within a day or so. “It can as simple as saying, ‘It was great to meet you last night, and I’d love to keep in touch. Are you on LinkedIn?’” says Sterling. That’s a low-key way to cement the connection, because now you can keep track of what that person is doing, even if he or she changes jobs. What about asking a new connection to meet you for coffee or lunch? Tread carefully here, since you don’t want to come across as pushy. “If you meet someone at an event and immediately say, ‘We should grab coffee sometime, because I’m actually doing the same thing you’re doing,’ that can be very off-putting,” says Ceniza-Levine. “It’s smarter to send a basic follow-up e-mail and maybe ask a question, then slowly gauge the relationship and that person’s interest in it before jumping into an ask like that.”

7. Give as good as you get. It’s important to understand that networking is a mutual relationship, one in which you help your connections as much as they help you, says Horwitz. If you can do a favor for a new acquaintance or a fellow alum without being asked, that puts you in a stronger position when you want to tap into that person’s expertise in the future. For example, if you hear that someone in your network is looking for a summer intern and you know a strong candidate, you should offer to put the two of them in touch. Depending on how well you know the person, you might even offer help on nonprofessional matters: recommending a new doctor to a former classmate, or giving advice on a favorite vacation spot to a friend in your book club. 

8. Take advantage of the Columbia Alumni Association. The CAA offers a huge menu of networking resources, including alumni groups in twenty-two states and fifty countries (see “Essential Networking Resources at Columbia,” below). The international groups are especially helpful for alumni who’ve been transferred to a new country and don’t know many people. The alumni group in Singapore, for instance, holds a popular Thanksgiving dinner for singles and families. It also helps secure internships with local alumni-run businesses through the Columbia Experience Overseas (CEO) program, says Nick Yen ’91SEAS, the president of the group. If you live in or around New York City, you can attend any number of alumni events on campus or in Manhattan. 


Essential Networking Resources at Columbia

The Columbia Alumni Association (alumni.columbia.edu) offers myriad ways for you to connect with other alumni and get advice on advancing your career. Look under the “Alumni Community” and “Columbia Alumni Careers” tabs to find these resources.

Alumni clubs: There are over a hundred regional alumni groups worldwide. You can also join a shared interest group such as Columbia Alumni Singers or the Asian Alumni Association or the Columbia Alumni Softball Team. alumni.columbia.edu/clubs

Social-networking links: Connect with alums via 320 Facebook groups, 160 Twitter groups, and 226 LinkedIn groups — including the CAA LinkedIn group of more than 42,000 members. alumni.columbia.edu/linkedin

Events: Check out the calendar to find networking events across the country. You can search for events by school and location. alumni.columbia.edu/events

Career Coaches Network: A group of twenty career coaches, all Columbia alumni, who, for a fee, can help with any aspect of career development, including résumé writing, interview prep, and career transition. alumni.columbia.edu/coaches 

School-specific career centers: Columbia’s sixteen schools are served by career centers on campus. You’ll find a central listing of them on the CAA website (click on the “Columbia Alumni Careers” tab, and then click on “Career Centers” in the menu).

CAA Arts Access: A program that connects alumni in the arts, and that has a professional-networking arm for members. alumniarts.columbia.edu

Free industry guides & career insight: The CAA offers access to career guides, company profiles, and industry insights through complimentary subscriptions to services such as Vault, Wetfeet, and Going Global. alumni.columbia.edu/career

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