They say it’s not what you know but who you know. So how do you go about building a powerful network and creating those important, career-changing connections?
According to Aleesha Smalls-Worthington, it all starts with having a direction. “It’s not about being at every single networking event there is… simply take the time to grab a piece of paper or open up your computer, and start answering questions like: Why do I want to expand my network? Is it because I’m trying to grow in my career? Is it because I’m trying to drive my personal brand?”
Smalls-Worthington has been a trailblazer in marketing and interactive for over 18 years. Currently she’s the senior brand director of marketing & e-commerce at men’s grooming brand Scotch Porter and shares her industry insights via her newly launched website, TheDigitalTidbits.com. Throughout her career, and during her nearly two decades in the fashion and entertainment industries, she’s built an impressive network that includes big names like JAY-Z, Rihanna, and Pharrell. But this successful networker warns against a lack of focus: “You can’t know everyone who’s a celebrity, everyone who’s connected to this one, that one. It’s just unrealistic,” says Smalls-Worthington. In fact, she believes that one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to build their network is focusing on quantity over quality.
“Not everyone is a good connection,” says Smalls-Worthington. “Don’t just fall in love with a name. Because guess what? A lot of times it’s just a name. You have to remember there are a lot of shallow folks out there! You see them on Instagram and they have about 800,000 fake followers. All the while, there’s a person who’s really directly connected, who doesn’t even have an Instagram handle, and can very well be your ‘in.’ It’s key to understand what connections represent so that they pour into who you want to be.”
To better understand networking pitfalls, I reached out to my own network to find out the biggest mistakes people make when trying to build strategic relationships and grow their contacts list.
1. Starting with an ask.
“Often, people try to lead with an ask. It’s inauthentic and frustrating for the person you are reaching out to,” says Whitney Gonzales, marketing manager at Liingo Eyewear. “Networks are long-term relationships that are to be nurtured and have a give-and-take connection.”
Demi Marchese, founder of 12th Tribe, agrees that asking for something right away is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. “Get to know someone before you ask them for a favor or request. It will build trust and loyalty,” says Marchese “And always say thank you! A handwritten note goes a long way and shows your connections you appreciate their help and the relationship you have created.”
2. Not understanding your value.
“You shouldn’t only seek contacts for your network that can provide something of benefit for you,” advises Gonzales. “Look for relationships that you can provide value to as well.”
“Before you even start to begin networking, understand what you’re bringing to the table,” adds Smalls-Worthington. “Like, literally jot down, ‘Hey, why would someone want to know me? What do I have to offer?’” And remember: everybody has something to offer.”
3. Letting it get awkward.
“The word networking can have a negative—and a bit scary—connotation. It’s not only showing up solo to an event, wearing a nametag, and cold introducing yourself to strangers,” says Gonzales. “Realize that you can activate your current network to build your future one. Don’t just think of business contacts as your network. Friends, old classmates, neighbors, a regular who frequented the restaurant you worked at in college…these could all be meaningful relationships or potential links to business connections.”
Her tip for making networking less awkward: “Grab a like-minded friend and join an organization that interests you both. Having a partner-in-crime at meetings and social functions makes it much easier to get out there.”
4. Not having a clear direction.
“I think a lot of the time, people don’t know who it is they’re looking to meet,” says Patricia Paramo, founder of Parpala Jewelry. “I see so many young entrepreneurs get caught up in the number of followers someone has, searching for validation. But are those the people that are going to help you, teach you, or nurture your career?”
“Be very intentional about who you’re spending time with and what relationships you’re most focused on,” adds Emily Holmes Hahn, founder and CEO of LastFirst Matchmaking. “Find peers who have professional attributes and work ethic you admire or who are going in the same career direction. Additionally, seek out mentors and teachers who have careers you aspire to, and nurture those relationships actively. These people will open doors for you if you if you play your cards right.”
5. Thinking you need to build a huge network.
Above all, the biggest mistake you can make is focusing on quantity over quality. Says Coral Chung, co-founder of Senreve, “The pure number of people you know doesn’t matter. It’s much more about the quality of your network. For example, if you reach out to them, would they reply? Would they endorse you? Would they make introductions for you? This is what counts.”
Adds Marchese, “While it’s beneficial to have a large network, it’s more important to have a strong network. The quality of the five people you bring closest to you greatly affect you. You are just like the five people you surround yourself with—be sure they are the type of people you want to learn and grow from.”