As your career grows, so does your network. After all, over a few decades you’ve had the opportunity to meet many people. And you’ve likely built a number of professional relationships that are both valued and helpful. But there are still some things people get wrong throughout the process.
“People think that networking is just getting together with people and getting their business card,” says Kim Marie Branch-Pettid, owner and CEO of LeTip International Inc., an international networking group. “The issue is you need to build relationships.” Beyond the basics of relationship-building, the age of social media — not to mention the pandemic — have changed some of the norms around networking. If you’re not keeping up, you could find yourself actually weakening your network. Here are nine mistakes to avoid.
Mistake 1: Letting network lapse
Over the past year and a half, in-person conferences didn't happen. Some organizations switched to virtual meetings, but it’s hard to have a one-on-one networking conversation in a virtual setting with a group of other people. That just means you need to be more purposeful than ever about keeping in touch with your connections and making new ones, Branch-Pettid says.
Some midcareer professionals “think that they can come in and just listen to what's going on and not participate anymore,” she says. She recommends structured networking settings that regularly offer the opportunity to connect with new people. But it’s also important to keep reaching out to your existing network to cultivate relationships, even if you’re still physically distancing.
Mistake 2: Overlooking social media
Even if you dislike social media, it still plays an important role in networking, says executive and career transition coach John Tarnoff, founder of Reinvention Group LLC and author of Boomer Reinvention: How to Create Your Dream Career after 50. LinkedIn is a good place to make professional connections, connect to groups of others who have the same interests and showcase your expertise. It also acts as a way of organizing and accessing your contacts. Comment on other LinkedIn posts, share content, write your own thought leadership, and use the platform as a way to showcase your experience and expertise, Tarnoff says.
Mistake 3: Ignoring junior colleagues
As you get more senior in your career, your peers are likely moving up, too. Be sure to keep newer professionals in the ranks of your contacts, too, says Devora Zack, founder of leadership training firm, Only Connect Consulting Inc., and author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking (Second Edition). You may come across opportunities to connect more junior people with new opportunities. And younger colleagues may bring new approaches and ideas. Seek out additional junior contacts and look into multigenerational networking programs your employer or professional associations might have.
Mistake 4: Pulling rank
Similarly, avoid acting in a way that may come across as resistant to change or acting like the older person in the room, Zack says. “Never refer to your colleagues as ‘kids,’” she adds. You may have more experience — and the people you’re networking with may even be the age of your grown children — but it’s important to treat them as colleagues and with respect. “Practice asking yourself what you can learn from your younger colleagues, because they're also have a fresh perspective,” she says.
Mistake 5: Following up the right way
As you network, be sure to note how your contact likes to communicate, Zack adds. “For people in their 50s and 60s a great way to follow up was with a phone call the next day. These days, that's hardly ever expected, and it's not done very often,” she says. Instead, contacts may prefer to interact via text, email, scheduled videoconferences, through social media or in other ways. Show your flexibility and tech proficiencies by following up using your contact’s preferred communication method.
Mistake 6: Getting hung up on dress codes
If you’re attending a networking event or starting in a new position, ask in advance about typical dress, Zack says. Dressing too formally for a networking event can date you or even be off-putting. “You don’t want to stand out as the only one in a matching suit,” she says. “Similarly, I've heard older people call younger people disrespectful for the way they dress, at work or events, or conferences, so also keep that in check. Realize that times have changed a little bit in how people dress for work and not judge.”
Mistake 7: Networking without focus
Take stock of your network from time to time, Zack says. What sorts of relationships do you need now? To what types of relationships could you add value? And then use your networking time to work on filling those gaps.
“Your goals might be really different from when you were right out of grad school or college,” Zack says. “Just take a moment [to think about] What do I want to get out of attending this event? It's surprising how often people forget to do that,” she says. Set a goal to meet four or five people at an event or to add people at a certain company, organization or role to your contacts and get to work on building those relationships, she says.
Mistake 8: Failing to build trust
Building rapport and trust should be your primary goal in networking, as those are the foundations of strong relationships, Branch-Pettid says. People like to do business with and refer people they trust. “Even if I only met you for a few minutes, if I could build that rapport, and a relationship of trust, right from the beginning, the relationship goes a long way,” she says. That’s what cultivates bonds that develop into friendships, referral sources and people who will help you — and people you will help — along the way. When you treat relationships as transactional, there’s nowhere for them to grow beyond the transaction.
Mistake 9: Ignoring your safety net
Tarnoff notes that many people over age 50 will be involuntarily separated from their jobs at some point. “Just as we hit our stride and feel like we've got it figured out, and we are about to hit our most productive period, business and the economy says, ‘Oh, you need to start winding down,’” he says.
So, just as you take other actions to remain marketable, such as training and upskilling, think about what your next move might be if you were to lose your job. Who could help you land in a new role, refer you to opportunities, or even help you start your own business? Your network can help keep you stay plugged in to the “hidden job market” — those jobs that are landed by referral and may not ever be advertised. Be sure you’re not ignoring the very relationships that could be crucial during those times, he says.
Gwen Moran is a contributing writer for AARP who specializes in business and finance. Her work has appeared in many leading business publications and websites, including Entrepreneur, Kiplinger.com, Newsweek.com, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine.