Wayne Luan was not shy about knocking down doors to get people to talk to him when he arrived at the University of Chicago.
With experience working in entrepreneurship, he brought networking skills with him to the Master of Science in Analytics (MScA) program, from which he graduated in 2017.
“My startup experience taught me strategic resilience because in a startup, initially, you get a lot more polite nos than yeses. This made me sensitive to strengthening my networking approach, which I continued to practice throughout the MScA program,” Luan says. “It allowed me to see opportunities and uncover partnerships that might otherwise have been difficult to see.”
Now a strategic advisor to the program, he has had time to reflect on his experience as an MScA student and the role networking has played in his personal and professional development.
“Another common misperception is that people think that introverts aren’t naturally predisposed to effective networking,” Luan says. “But that is simply not true. No matter where you identify on the personality spectrum, effective networking requires a significant amount of preparation and practice. It requires being methodical and focused and then bringing that skillset to all your interactions.”
These are soft skills that, with practice, anyone can acquire. Luan points to some of the basics:
- Be authentic, reciprocate, and think about the long-term relationship
- Prepare, practice, and perfect your approach
- Take time, take action, and take away the experience
Be authentic and think long-term
A common networking mistake involves seeing every networking interaction like a job opportunity. By contrast, Luan emphasizes the significance of valuing the interaction with a growth mindset. Some of these skills come with age, experience, and disposition, Luan admits, but other important aspects can be learned.
“Networking does not work best when you see it as a matter of asking another person for something,” he says. “Approaching it with the right mentality involves genuine authenticity to taking an interest in others. Networking is an excellent way to hear about a new or existing acquaintance’s latest project, career, or interests and how you may support each other immediately or down the road.”
Networking revolves around your goals and being able to find commonality with others. While one need not approach each interaction with an end, Luan sees each networking interaction as a possible opportunity, including being able to serve as a connector to someone else.
Prepare and perfect your pitch
A typical mistake Luan sees occurs when people immediately write off a poor interaction as a failure. Even worse is when they blame the failure on themselves. The result is that networking can sometimes become a grueling, even painful experience for some.
“Your goals for networking are going off-course if that is happening,” Luan says. “Networking is about building relationships that might not lead to anything for a long time. In fact, it might never lead to anything. But the possibility is always there that down the road that connection could provide exactly what you’re looking for. The point is, you never know, so always try to put your best foot forward.”
Take time and take action
Needless to say, networking is not for couch potatoes. Rooted in the hustle, it involves making things happen. Graduate programs provide guidance to professional networking, but ultimately, it’s on the individual to take charge of their career.
“You have to put in the time and effort when it comes to networking,” Luan says. “There is no excuse not to take the time to conduct research prior to the networking session, especially if you have advanced notice. From there, set concrete and measurable goals for how you want a networking conversation to unfold.”
Luan uses the example of supporting a recent MScA Data Hackathon in April that brought in over fifty students and twenty alumni to address COVID-19 related data challenges.
“In that way, you deepen your connection with the person you reach out to and gain valuable experience while also doing something altruistic for your fellow classmates. Those are important skills no matter where you go, whether it’s for personal or professional development.”
Remote networking in the COVID-19 era
For behavior that thrives on the handshake and face-to-face encounter, networking seems to have been thrown a wrench by COVID-19. For Luan, however, it has also introduced a new opportunity.
“Remote networking has lowered the barrier to entry. It’s humanized us and people are now willing to hop on Zoom, turn on their camera, and seem more open to conducting an introductory call. Perhaps it reflects our innate desire for human interaction, but it’s easier to make that initial contact.”
Without the personal connection developed over coffee or a drink, however, a difficulty emerges when it comes to converting a remote networking experience into something more sustainable.
“You are at a disadvantage when it comes to the depth of the connection, but the initial ability to make that connection is where the advantage lies. The key is that, even in this remote networking world, we need to treat each encounter like an in-person meeting.”
Luan notes three questions he asks himself and answers prior to each networking interaction:
- What are a few things you are hoping to achieve?
- What do you know and what do you want to know?
- What are one or two takeaways from this experience?
“The key thing to remember is that, even in the remote networking world, general networking tips still apply,” he says. “It is a matter of being proactive and reflecting on that experience with a growth mindset.