Many people will tell you that you should be networking, and that it’s really important in your career. In reality, forced networking is rarely productive. Going to events and pinging people on LinkedIn, all for the sake of “knowing” more people, won’t get you anywhere worth going.
For networking that is worthwhile, you need to have a direction. If you’re currently working in one job but are thinking of moving into another field, go where people in that field are. If you’re thinking of going out on your own and becoming a founder, go where founders and VCs go. Get more strategic than ever.
Don’t go to just any and all events in that space. Find the best ones. Ask people senior to you, colleagues, and friends. Find out where you should spend your time so you don’t waste it.
Walk into each event with a clear purpose in mind and stick to it.
Be friendly, open, and willing to meet anyone — all while staying aware of your goal. Ask questions and be genuinely interested in the answers.
Don’t ask for things from the people you meet. That’s for later on. Open up to them about what you’re looking to do without pitching, and without endangering your current job.
As you network, keep in mind that you don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. If you are, then you’re in the wrong room. You want to learn from people smarter than you about something. I try to be the second dumbest person in the room. But if I’m the dumbest, that’s perfectly OK too.
Invest in relationships. If someone does you a favor or makes an introduction that yields a big reward like funding, customers, hires, etc., send them something nice. If you put the time and effort into building positive relationships, you may not even have to ask when you need something. When I launched my coffee alternative company SUTRA, I wrote a post about it on my public networks. Quite a few highly influential connections asked, “What can I do to help?”
I also recommend creating a list of people you’ve worked with, worked for, partnered with, been mentored by, or provided services to, whom you want to work with again. Find the chance to do so when the time is right. This system has come in handy for me time and time again.
Some relatively introverted people especially feel nervous about networking. This is understandable. I advise them to try to make a game out of it. At each networking event, just go in with the goal of doing better than you did last time. For example, tell yourself, “OK, I’m going to meet three potential customers, advisers, or investors.” Before the event, consider the criteria that would make people successful new connections.
When meeting people, have your go-to story to become memorable. Perhaps a recent story from your work life that’s funny but also relevant because it highlights your skills.
Also, be sure to have a go-to intro for yourself, in which you describe your work in ten seconds or less. This is shorter than an elevator pitch, and very helpful.
And remember, in all your conversations, asking questions and listening is the most important part. The person who controls the questions controls the conversation.
Learn how to exit a conversation gracefully. Some people may want to keep talking while you want to mingle. It can be helpful to say something like, “Oh, I’ve just spotted someone I need to catch before she leaves. Would you excuse me?”
Finally, I recommend that you always be the one to get the other person’s contact information. Get their card, and follow up. As a rule, I don’t even hand out business cards. I just ask people for them. That way, I’ll do the first reach out afterward and build the relationship.
(This answer is adapted from my book, Career Hacking for Millennials.)
This post first appeared on Quora.