9 tips to help build your professional network

How to build relationships that will help build your career

Dan Radovanovic was living and working in Grande Prairie when he and his wife decided they needed to be closer to family in Edmonton. So when he found himself thrust into an irresistible networking opportunity, he pounced.

At a NAIT dinner where he received the Sandvik Coromant Leadership Award, the 36-year-old machinist made a connection with a Sandvik Coromant rep who later took him to half a dozen machine shops in Edmonton. He got a job offer from each one and started as a general machinist at Argus Machine Co. in January 2012.

Keven McGhan, NAIT JR Shaw School of Business instructor on business networking“When you’re looking for work and you’re placed in an opportunity where there’s people around who can help, don’t hold back,” says Radovanovic (Machinist ’11).

It’s a perfect example of how networking can further your career, says Keven McGhan (right), associate chair of Management at NAIT’s JR Shaw School of Business. The more connections you have, the bigger the pool of people you have to draw from when you need to find a job or make a crucial career move.

“If you’ve developed a bunch of great relationships, you’re not going to Monster.com when you decide you want a career change.”

McGhan (Finance ’89) teaches networking skills and business etiquette as part of his sales management courses. Each semester, his students host a networking dinner for employers, at which many of the students make “handshake deals” that often lead to jobs.

Even if you’re painfully shy, you can learn to network, whether you run into that very desirable contact at a networking event or while waiting to cross a downtown street. Building on Radovanovic’s “be direct” approach, McGhan offers his top tips to help you build confidence and make sure you never miss a chance to connect.

Elevator speech

A guy walks onto an elevator and in two floors or less lets others know who he is and what he has to offer. He’s delivered an “elevator speech,” or what McGhan describes as a 30-second verbal cover letter.

For example, a friend of McGhan’s says in his elevator speech: “I help people make their mortgages tax-deductible.” Your elevator speech should offer relevant information about you, customized to your goals. So if you hope to land a job in marketing, your elevator speech could start with, “Hi, I’m Jane Jones and I make videos go viral.”

Add value

Think about what you can do for your new contact, not the other way around. “Your first objective should be to help someone else,” says McGhan. “If you introduce them to someone or something that’s going to help them, they’re going to remember that.”

“Your first objective should be to help someone else.”

Be interesting

Be primed to talk about current events so you won’t be afraid of having nothing to say. Show up to an event armed with an interesting – and positive – news story to discuss. “Don’t talk politics, at least not at the beginning. It can be very polarizing.”

Networking non-starters

  • Don’t rely on LinkedIn or other social media as your main networking tool. It doesn’t replace face-to-face contact, says McGhan. Add someone on LinkedIn only after you’ve met him or her in person.
  • Look at a networking event or opportunity as a place to make a few meaningful contacts, not collect as many business cards as you can.
  • Eye contact is crucial while talking to someone, says McGhan. “Don’t scan the room for the next, most interesting target.

Master the art of small talk

It’s not as small as you might think. Good small-talkers are the ones who practice “host behaviour.”

McGhan says, “Try to make the other person feel as comfortable as possible. Ask them lots of questions about themselves, show interest and ask follow-up questions.” Most people will eventually start to ask about you – and give you a chance to shine.

Take a buddy

Introverts can benefit from a buddy system at important networking events.

“Go with someone who is more outgoing than you,” suggests McGhan, and lean on the person to introduce you to some contacts. “Eventually, confidence will come and you won’t need them as much.”

A buddy can also cut in and help steer you away if you’ve been waylaid by someone for too long and are having trouble ending the conversation.

Make some post-chat notes

After a great conversation with a new contact, write down a few notes on the back of his business card – for example, a hobby or interest he mentioned. It will help keep the conversation going when you send a follow-up email. If you found out he has a sailboat, McGhan suggests doing some research on sailing and including a link to an online article with a note to say, “Hey, I was reading this and thought of you.”

Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.

Sign up today »