The power of networking
I'm sure you've heard that networking is good for your career, yet many of us still don't network as much as we should. I wonder if the reason cuts to the heart of our culture? Making small talk with people you don't know is completely outside our British comfort zone. However, networking can be incredibly powerful and open doors to like-minded colleagues who can support you to solve that difficult problem you've been working on or even help you get a new job. It makes good business sense therefore to put your British reserve to one side (even if just for a few hours) and make the most of these opportunities when they present themselves.
Getting started with networking
So how do you go about it? My advice is to be strategic, but start small. Attend a sector event such as an Advance HE Leading Change network event (or internal staff development event) when you are surrounded by people just like you. That way, you are halfway there - you already have something in common with the other delegates. Even if your conversation starts about the weather or how far you've travelled, it's a good beginning from where a more fruitful conversation can flow.
Thankfully most HE events make you wear a name badge that includes the name of your institution. Although I appreciate this is mildly irritating, the name badge is the networker’s friend. Not only do you now know the name of the person you're going to talk to, but you also know the name of their institution - this is gold dust. It will help you direct the conversation, you can either try to bring something into the conversation that you know about that institution (perhaps you already know someone there?) or use the fact that you know nothing about their University to ask how they deal with the thorny policy issue you have been grappling with.
The amazing thing is that that the HE sector is incredibly open and welcoming. Although we are increasingly working in a competitive environment, colleagues are still happy to share their experience, and the Advance HE Leading Change network is a shining example of this at its best. Whenever I attend any sort of sector event I will look to see who else has signed up for the event – at the Leading Change network hosted by the University of Hertfordshire I noticed that Susanne Clarke the Head of Service Excellence at Bournemouth was due to attend so arranged to meet her over lunch. At the subsequent event at Anglia Ruskin I made a useful connection with Julie Compton, a Director of Projects at Kent. As the next Leading Change event was being held at her University I arranged to meet her for breakfast (before the event began) to discuss projects of mutual interest. I also decided that as I was definitely going to attend the next event I might as well put myself forward to present my experiences of leading change, thereby hoping to widen my network further.
the most useful and interesting connections can often be made from the "lucky dip"
Ideally, I look to connect with someone doing a similar role to me. However, the most useful and interesting connections can often be made from the "lucky dip" of just talking to anyone you happen to bump into over lunch or coffee. Don’t worry if you can’t find common ground with everyone you meet, just politely say goodbye, and move on to someone new. In my experience, the benefit of this networking often outweighs the benefit of the event itself.
Networking beyond events
However, while this chat is useful it’s not enough, you need to follow through. This is where LinkedIn comes into its own – if you’re not yet a member maybe it’s time to join? Gone are the days of exchanging business cards, instead ask to connect on LinkedIn so that you can easily stay in touch. Send your new contact a message as soon as you can and while the conversation is still fresh in their minds. Better still arrange a visit to their institution or invite them to yours. I have hosted over 10 visits to my University since the creation of our Student Hub in 2014 to share our best practice. I can honestly say all have influenced my thinking and informed my practice. As explained above, I try to make at least one meaningful connection at every event I go to, because you never know when you might need your new-found contact, or when they might need you.
I try to make at least one meaningful connection at every event I go to
Once you’ve master this, you can develop this approach further. I like to try and link colleagues together where I can see there is an obvious overlap of interests. At a recent Advance HE Aurora event I connected one my fellow facilitators with a delegate which resulted in the delegate securing a new job! This has given me the nickname of the “link lady”.
I hope I’ve spurred you into action to try strategic networking at your next event, after all what’s the worst that can happen?
Julie Kelly is the Head of the Student Centre at the University of Hertfordshire. She is passionate about transforming lives through education and is constantly striving to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the services she delivers to provide an outstanding experience to students and colleagues.