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A Step-by-Step Guide to Networking for Business Professionals

Business networkingTricia Baione came to business from journalism, of all places. When the magazine industry was on life support, she thought she better rethink her choice in career. Baione entered the MBA program at Columbia Business School (CBS) planning to pursue marketing in media, but she quickly turned her attention to marketing across all industries. That is when she started cultivating a professional network, she says. "I was not looking for a job," adds Baione. "I was learning what kind of job I'd like to have."

Indeed, Baione, who is now senior associate director of Career Education and Advising at her alma mater, advises students to approach networking as a chance to explore options and not as a direct route to employment. Once you change your mindset, you can get out there, meet people, and make meaningful connections that last your whole career. But before you start stockpiling business cards, consider these tips from the experts:

Snag a "warm" introduction

In the world of networking, there are both warm and cold introductions. A warm introduction means someone who knows both parties makes the connection, whereas a cold one means you contact a stranger and try to break the ice yourself. A warm introduction is ideal because you and the other person have a mutual friend, and that's more likely to lead to an actual relationship.

However, you shouldn't just wait for friends and family to offer to put you in touch with someone. Let everyone know what career you are interested in pursuing and see if they know anyone. People often just assume their friends and family don't know the right people, and they're wrong, says Baione. She also suggests looking at the contacts of your LinkedIn connections, and asking them for warm introductions when appropriate.

Make contact

Once an introduction has been made -- often through e-mail, if not in person -- career experts at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School tell students to share a bit about themselves and be explicit about how a contact can help, says Michelle Hopping, director of Employer Services in MBA Career Management at Wharton. "Stating your intentions, following up with a thank you, and then circling back to update the person when there is an outcome later are all best practices," she adds.

Refrain from sending a resume or asking for a job right off the bat. Most experts agree that contacts will feel like you're using them, says Baione. And they'll probably end up ignoring you, either because they don't have time to read all the resumes people send, or they just don't have any openings to fill. Instead, you might say something like, "I worked at XYZ investment bank before pursuing an MBA. Now, I'm interested in learning more about management consulting. Would you be able to grab coffee and walk me through your career path?"

Keep in touch

Once someone has made an introduction, you must follow through with the contact. You can't reject the person, especially if you asked to be put in touch. Besides, you never know who will end up being a help to you. Proper etiquette requires you to make contact. Once you have, you should check in with the person periodically, and not just when you need something. Drop a note to catch them up on your relevant schoolwork or internship. Ask them how they are doing, and see if you can give them a hand with anything. By all means, share news stories and other public information that is relevant to conversations you've had with them about the industry and their business.

Be a pal

In that same vein, you should keep tabs on what your contacts are doing. One way, says Baione, is to set up Google Alerts for their names. If you see anything exciting and positive happening for them or their company in the news, get in touch. "Sending notes of congratulations on personal or company progress often serves as an easy way to continue contact," adds Hopping.

Ask for a favor

Presumably, you have done all the right things to develop real relationships. The people in your network, as a result, trust that you're not trying to get something out of them. Now is the time you can ask for a favor. Go with a soft ask, suggests Baione. This means that you don't come right out and ask for a job or whether you can pass them your resume. Instead, you explain that you've had great conversations with them in the past, really respect their role in the industry, and would love feedback on your resume. Once they say yes, then and only then, should you send your resume over.

Follow up

Once you land a job or settle on a career, don't just drop your connections. Stay in touch, continue to update them on your accomplishments, offer to help them when you can, and congratulate them on their own successes. Just being professional and courteous can go a long way in preserving your network for the next time you need to make a career move.