By Shannon Houde
Whenever I tell a client they need to network to land a career in sustainability, grown men and women screw up their faces like their little kid just said a forbidden word – the horror!
To many people, networking is a dirty, cringe-inducing word. The mere thought of standing alone at an event surrounded by potential employers, clients or contacts has them breaking out in a cold sweat. But these same people will happily go to a party or chat to a stranger on a plane, so how do they suddenly develop a phobia of meeting new people when they find themselves in a professional situation? They’ve forgotten that all networking is is basically making new friends, and that it can be fun as well as strategic, albeit takes practice.
Social media takes the pain out of modern networking — there are no awkward silences on a LinkedIn profile even though you could send an InMail and never hear back – at least you get a refund. If you’re looking to make a career move into sustainability, corporate responsibility or the green economy, in-person networking remains the best way to convert potential opportunities into real jobs.
After all, the main soft skill that crosses most roles in the sustainability agenda is communications – whether you are bridging the gaps between different stakeholder groups or influencing a Board for buy-in you need to be a great communicator, great connector and great relationship builder. Networking is just another aspect of that same skill set. For sustainability jobseekers, events and conferences are a great opportunity to show off those talents face-to-face, so step away from the coffee table and give yourself a professional edge by following my tips below:
1. Don’t defer
Think everyone in the room is smarter, more senior, better dressed than you? Then you’ll never have the courage to start a conversation. Banish the imaginary hierarchy in your head and place yourself on an equal footing with everyone else, equally deserving of respect, equally worth talking to. Stand with shoulders back and front of your body open to the room so that you are accessible and friendly looking while also looking confident.
2. Empathize, don’t sympathize
There are other people in the room feeling just as awkward and uncomfortable as you are. Rather than feeling sorry for yourself, turn your attention outwards and look for someone just as lost as you to go and speak to. As Jeff Haden puts it, “Turn sympathy for yourself into empathy for another. Go rescue someone.”
3. Be prepared
Having a little background knowledge on the other companies and individuals attending can be worth its weight in gold, so do your research in advance. At the same time, it’s a good idea to prepare a 30-second elevator pitch that sums up your USP – unique selling points. A killer elevator pitch is concise, clear, confident, and ends with a question or request.
4. Ask great questions
This comes from being well informed with your research as in step three. If you already know something about the companies that are attending, you can confidently ask about the sustainability work they’re undertaking. For example, you could ask how that new initiative is working out? What are their key issues? How is the process working? How are they approaching stakeholder engagement? Just like in dating, when in doubt, ask the other person to tell you about themselves and their work.
5. Be comfortable with silence
Confident people aren’t fazed by gaps in the conversation so don’t let your nervousness overload the person you’re speaking to with a babbling monologue. Confidence is demonstrated as much in silence as in what you say. Better to pause and let the silence set in or allow it to be an opportunity to move on to someone else.
6. Follow up
A short ‘nice to meet you’ email in the days after a meeting isn’t just polite, it will remind key contacts of who you are, what you do, and what you have in common. Sounds simple? You’d be surprised how few people actually do this. Rather than just sending out a generic LinkedIn invitation, make a personal connection – because that’s what it’s all about – building a relationship.
7. Give to receive
Once you’ve made that new connection, networking doesn’t end there! All relationships are a two-way street so think about what you can offer as well as what you can receive. Nurture your network by sharing articles, insights and ideas. That way, when you need a personal recommendation or an internal referral, you’re more likely to get a positive response.
For more insights on networking, career changes and making it in the competitive world of sustainability careers, contact me.
Shannon Houde is founder of Walk of Life Consulting, the first international career coaching business focused solely on the environmental, sustainability and corporate responsibility fields.