Up to 85 percent of open job positions are filled through networking. However, building your professional contacts at events can often be intimidating, especially if you don’t anyone in the room.
“Anyone serious about their career and broadening their professional relationships will often find themselves in situations where they know very few people or no one in the room,” said Dee Poku-Spalding, founder and CEO of Women Inspiration & Enterprise (WIE), an influential women’s leadership network with 30,000 members, including 750 women at the senior level.
Poku-Spalding, known as the ultimate connector, recently shared her best tips with Know Your Value about how to break the ice when you’re networking solo.
Do some prep work
If you’re attending the type of event where you can look up who is attending or speaking and what organizations they are from, do your research well in advance. “Determine who you want to meet to help the right connections materialize and to make it a very fruitful experience,” Poku-Spalding suggested.
Get there early
If you’re a bit shy or reserved, it’s helpful to get to the networking event early. Not only is it harder to walk into a crowded room and mingle into a conversation that may have started before you arrived, but being one of the first attendees puts you in a situation where people will likely walk up to you and start a discussion. “Be the one people come to first,” she explained.
Look for common ground
During networking events, it’s common for people to ask you about your job title. However, Poku-Spalding believes that a better strategy is to look for some common ground. A question like, “have you been to this event before?” could be an easy icebreaker question that is less aggressive than the question, “what do you do?” Poku-Spalding recommended asking lots of questions, because people generally like to talk about themselves and are more receptive to people who seem interested in who they are and why they’re there.
Bring your best self
When engaging in conversation, you should bring your best, most interested self to the interaction so you can make a great first impression. “Really try and let your personality shine through,” Poku-Spalding said.
Focus on what’s best for business
“It’s important to understand that, generally speaking, women network differently than men,” Poku-Spalding said. “Women generally want to like someone and enjoy spending time with them, whereas men are happy to start a relationship with anyone if it could be good for business,” she said. “The process of networking for women can be a little bit slower because we have to build the foundations first.” Her advice: “Friendship is important but so is having people around you who support you professionally. Think about what you want to achieve and the relationships you need in your life that allow you to do that.”
All of these tips could help you navigate a networking event in which you don’t know anyone in the room. But the work certainly doesn’t end there. When you follow up with the new contacts you’ve made, be the first one to suggest that you get together again. For example, send out an email to invite a group of people you’ve met at a networking event to get together and build on the relationship you just started. “Be the glue that brings everyone together,” Poku-Spalding said.