‘Networking’ has been a buzzword amongst professionals for many years. The idea of advertising yourself and your skills amongst as many people as possible in a more personal way than a flat advertisement is considered a more effective way to obtain new business and seek employment than brochures and CV’s.
As a student with an eye to a successful future career, networking is something to look forward to. Meeting new people from different industries, professions and getting exposure to the business world. The question is, how do you go about doing this, and what does it really mean to you right now?
To be honest, a lot of young professionals seem to have adopted a misconception about networking that involves fancy functions, big, well-known figures to name-drop at the next function and an enviable status amongst peers and colleagues. While all of these may be components of your future career, it is a slightly glamourised picture.
Part of this perception includes that expectation that all this will probably only start once you’re qualified. It is this perception I’d like to question here.
Networking can be seen as personal marketing. All of us have a certain personal brand. People identify us by our style, personality, interests and hobbies, opinions and our interaction with them. We can extend this to our work-life. Our studies, work experience, skills, professional interests and opinions will create part of our personal brand. Most students and clerks feel that this will only be valuable once they’re qualified, and that any experience they have outside of the professional path will be irrelevant. This is definitely not true!
As people meet you, no matter what level you may be at, they will form impressions of you. A lot of this impression is based on who you are. If you are introduced to someone as a student, that person will create an impression of you on the basis that you’re a student. They won’t compare you to a qualified professional, because you’re not. Their impression will involve your personality, engagement with people and how you conduct yourself.
You may think you have nothing to offer while you’re at this level, but make no mistake, people are watching you. Your lecturers, your colleagues and peers, your family and friends who know what you’re studying and working towards. The impression you create may be filed away for later use. One day, when they’re looking for tax advice, or accounting information, will your name spring to mind as someone that might help them?
Your first network will probably include fellow students. Have you considered this? In a few years time, you expect to be qualified, and you’re surrounded by people who are working towards the same goals within the same industry as yourself. You may one day end up working with them, for them, or they may work for you! You may remember someone you were in class with, or who served articles with you when you embark on a project, and feel that they’d be great to have on board. You may suggest them when something is outside of your specialism because you remembered their work ethic and strengths. Would they remember you? Would they refer you?
Long before you qualify, you are building a brand for yourself. Your brand is not solely dependant on the letters behind your name. It is based on your work ethic, interaction with others, strengths and weaknesses. If you’re aware of this, you can have more control over what your brand will eventually become! This is not the same as deciding what career path to follow, since you may not know that until a while after you’ve qualified.
Networking, in short, can be seen as how you sell your personal brand within the group of people you move, whatever that group may be. Regardless of the company you work for or the level of qualification, it is you that people interact with. The impression you leave them with might influence whether your current group invites you to those fancy functions later on! Best you start working on that now!