How to network in a virtual world

Jul 16, 2020
Julia Rowan shares her six simple steps for a digital networking strategy that will help you connect with the right people, build your network, and raise your profile with minimum fuss.

First of all, let’s consider why you might network: it’s because networks offer opportunities at every stage in your career. Early in your career, they help you stay abreast of professional developments, acquire clients, find help, and know what’s current. Networks can also help you find a job or move to another employer. (As an aside, estimates about the number of jobs that are never publicly advertised differ – but they are all much, much higher than you might expect. At a very conservative estimate, at least 50% of jobs are filled without their availability being publicly advertised. And how are these unadvertised jobs filled? Through networks, of course!)

As your career develops, your network may be useful in helping you move to a new role, find clients (or, indeed, recruits for your team), and identify experts or consultants. Working as a coach, I constantly see the value that developing good relationships and networks can bring.

Shatter the stereotype

What’s your idea of a great networker? A shiny, smiley person working the room? A cheerful word for everyone and a handful of business cards – given and received? Finding precisely the right moment to land and engage – and then move on to the next group before they get stuck? Or is it a more thoughtful and generous person who sincerely engages with a small number of people; one who is interested in who they are, what they need, and how they can help?

Whatever the stereotype says, they are much more likely to be in the second category because networking is a long-term, ‘fees up-front’ activity – credits first, then debits. And while the current pandemic prevents us from meeting in crowded rooms, social media is a great leveller. It favours younger people who tend to be more tech-savvy.

Your simple strategy

Your online presence tells a story about you, and your story must be coherent (or, even better, compelling). Like anything worth doing, having a strategy is essential – but don’t let the word put you off. ‘Strategy’ is just a fancy word for planning which, in turn, is a fancy word for thinking. Here are some pointers:

  1. The starting point is to work out what you want. It’s back to the useful, if clichéd, question: where do you want to be in three years? But it’s a cliché for a reason – because it’s a great question. Do you want to work in practice? In industry? In financial services? In tax? In M&A? In Ireland? And if so, where? Or abroad? Talking about goals can seem scary, but working out what you want (which can sometimes be done by working out what you don’t want) is a great way to focus your attention on what is important to you. You will probably be very clear about some of what you want, and there will also be little whispers that are worth listening to. Some people have been asked by their employer to build their network, so consider how to make that a win for all three sides – you, your employer, and your contacts.
  2. Next, reflect on what you can offer. What knowledge, skills, interests, and experiences do you bring to the table? It’s unlikely to be a significant amount of accountancy experience and contacts if you are in the early stages of your career. You will nevertheless have up-to-date accountancy skills, not to mention other skills picked up in part-time jobs. Know your strengths: perhaps you are flexible, a problem-solver, good at defusing tension, or are comfortable with ambiguity. Early career professionals are often full of energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, and new ways of looking at things.
  3. Be realistic and reasonable with yourself. A small network of the right people is much more valuable than 2,000 followers or connections. There is little harm in playing the numbers game, but not much benefit either.
  4. Get your head straight. Are you conscious of your internal story? We all have internal stories and we are often not even aware of them, but they drive the permission we give ourselves – to be active on social media, to apply for a job or a promotion, to take a risk. “I don’t have much to offer” and “I am the greatest” are not useful internal stories. A good internal story combines realism and optimism.
  5. Get active on LinkedIn. It’s an essential digital networking platform and the first stop for recruiters. Create a compelling profile with a good photo. When you invite people to connect, always write a personalised message. Be honest and explain why you would like to connect. For example, “I am interested in moving into financial services and would find it helpful to see what senior people in that sector are posting about” or “I saw your post about IFRS 17, which is an area I’m really interested in”. Update your profile regularly and post short, chunky takeaways from CPD events.
  6. Follow company pages, relevant groups, and hashtags. Consistency is critical; liking or commenting once or twice a day will give you far more reach than a weekly or monthly ‘blast’. (Lots of specialists post excellent information on YouTube and other platforms about how to work the algorithms and make the best use of such sites).

After qualification, building your network is probably the most important thing you will do in developing your career. As your career evolves, so too should your network. Good networks take time and energy to create and sustain, but they repay the investment in spades.

Julia Rowan is Founder of Performance Matters.