A different kind of corporate networking event

Old-fashioned networking There we were, over 100 of us, gathered at a networking event. And it struck me that people have been holding these kinds of events, in the same format, for perhaps 50 or even 100 years.

Groups of 10 sat at large round tables and listened to a panel talk about their networking experiences. Then the people at each table introduced themselves and discussed a few questions. Some people handed out business cards before they left.

True, we did meet some people and we did talk about networking. But we didn’t actually change how people develop relationships or make any meaningful connections.

 “There has got to be a better way,” I thought.

“How did you get your current job?”

One of the questions we discussed was “How did you get your current job?” And the answers underscored how most people take a scattershot approach to networking and really do play career roulette.

A recent finance graduate, for example, happened to attend our company’s event on campus and wound up in an arcane business area. Another person’s company was acquired and so now she had a new boss at a new firm. My favorite was an experienced person whose prior business was shut down. He got his current job after bumping into an old acquaintance at a bar.

Old Acquaintance: “What are you up to?”  

Experienced Person: “I’m looking for something new.”

Old Acquaintance: “Oh, I think a friend of mine is hiring at his firm. Are you interested?”

Experienced Person (to the table): “So I sent him a note, and here I am.”

Everyone agreed that building a network is important and they all wanted to do something about it. But what?

The same themes, over and over and over

As people described their experiences with networking, the common theme seemed to be frustration:

“I don’t have any time.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“I know I should follow up but I don’t.” 

Ironically, the event just increased their frustration. It further reinforced what they already knew ("I should be networking more!") without providing them with a better way of doing it. After the event, everyone would still struggle with time, technique, and a lack of a system or new habits.

That motivated me to make some simple adjustments to the next event I’d participate in.

5 ways to make networking events better

The best networking experiences I’ve ever been a part of are dinners hosted by Keith Ferrazzi. Aside from the food and drink, the venue and the small tables designed to promote better interactions, he also gets people to know and care about each other. And he does that by sharing personal information and asking probing questions. At one of his dinners, you can do more than meet people. You can make friends for life.

What if our corporate networking events were more like that? Even if you can't control the food, the venue, or the tables, here are 5 simple things you can do to make networking events better.

  1. Prepare rich profiles: Prepare in-depth profiles of everyone in the room, including links to their LinkedIn pages or other public profiles.
  2. Ask humanizing questions: In the profile, include questions such as “What are you passionate about?” and “What’s your superpower?” to avoid people simply providing their corporate title and work history. Provide a real example of an interesting profile.
  3. Allow time to explore: Share the profiles ahead of time so everyone can look for people they’d like to meet at the event. Make sure they can access the profiles during the event, too, and give them time to browse.
  4. Offer helpful nudges: At least one person should be a designated match-maker, making introductions based on things they’ve noticed from carefully reviewing all of the profiles. (“You two were both in the Peace Corps! You should definitely know each other.”)
  5. Build in a little structure: Help people with follow-ups by structuring specific actions into the event. It could be “Make 3 new LinkedIn connections during the event”. (Or, better yet, use your company’s social platform if you have one.) Or “Schedule a lunch & 2 coffees before the night is over.”

Next time, instead of having everyone just talk about networking, make sure they can actually practice it.

What do you think? What made your great networking experiences great? What would you do to make your next event better?