Networking. We hear that word a lot as we get into college, enter the workforce, and begin building our careers, but what does ‘networking’ even mean? The bona fide, Merriam-Webster definition of networking is “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions. specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” Essentially networking is building and fostering relationships for professional reasons and benefits. These are the people you call on when you need a good word put in for a job, speaker ideas for the event you are putting on, or advice on something that is happening in your career. Having a strong professional network will be beneficial to you for years to come. That is why we are here, giving you the basics of networking and building your connections!
Who goes in my ‘network’?
“So who are these connections and what types of people do I want in my network?” Good question. Think of it like building a roster – one with no limit. People you can automatically add to it will be people you already know! This will include professors, advisors, past bosses/supervisors, current and former colleagues, current and former classmates, friends, and even family. Really rack your brain for everyone you know and how you all could have a mutually beneficial professional relationship and add them all to your professional network roster. It may not seem like it, but you more than likely already have a foundation for a pretty solid network! So let’s keep building.
Growing My Network
Chances are your network roster is already fairly solid with just the people you know, so now it’s time to expand it with new contacts! Now we know what you all are already thinking: “Meeting new people is hard! I am so awkward at first meeting, I can’t do it. What do I do with my hands?!” Expanding your network is going to take you out of your comfort zone, but “the comfort zone is nothing else but a graveyard for your dreams and ideas,” – anonymous.
Step out of your comfortability, just for a bit. You might be thinking we are going to tell you to seek out ‘networking events and go to as many as possible, but you’re wrong. We aren’t saying don’t go to networking events (because there is definitely a benefit in those), but there are other places and times you can be ‘networking’ that might come at more ease. Ultimately, networking can happen anywhere, anytime. Strike up a conversation with someone you see reading a book you’re interested in, ask them if they would recommend it, and then continue the conversation by asking what they do. Does this seem scary? Maybe, but this will definitely pay off in the long run.
There are some things you can prepare for ahead of time when focusing on networking. If you are going to a professional event, a networking event, or an association/club meeting, there is a big opportunity for you to practice and hone your networking skills. We know you have heard this before but think about your elevator pitch. What do you want people to know about you? And vice versa what do you want to know about the people you are meeting? These are things that you can prepare and think about beforehand, so you aren’t left in awkward silence. Don’t worry, we’ve given you some scenarios below for you to think through!
These are possible scenarios that you can think through and how you would handle them with a networking mindset.
Your college class has a guest speaker from a company you are very interested in working for one day. They speak for the first half of the class and then leave, handing out business cards on their way out. How would you go about creating a connection?
You are at your local FFA fundraiser and you find yourself talking to someone who has ties to a certain organization you want to be a part of. How do you go about the conversation of asking for a referral?
You created your LinkedIn profile and started following a distant acquaintance who posts a lot about your current industry. You enjoy their viewpoints and their posts but have never been formally introduced. What’s your move?
Another tool you can utilize for networking is social media! Ever hear of LinkedIn? It was specifically created for the purpose of professional networking. Make connections, reach out to others about their posts, join specialty groups, and start creating relationships online as well. This helps to expand your network because then you aren’t limited to a location. This can help you stay in touch with connections who have moved out of your area but you want to continue to foster that relationship.
Networking in Ag + Western
Some of you may be wondering….how am I supposed to network when I work in an ag + western industry? We totally get it. It can be tough to get off your farm, ranch, arena, or office—but it can be done! Here are some ag + western specific ideas for how to build relationships with others in your industry.
Ranching – Attend your local Cattle/Sheep Raisers meeting. This will give you the ability to not only meet and connect with the staff for the association but also network with other producers in your area! Think of the years of experience and knowledge in that room? There are also various national conventions for livestock groups that would be worth attending!
Farming – If you raise a specific crop (potatoes, cotton, soybeans, etc), most have state associations, that we highly encourage you to join! Often times those groups also have national conventions that you can attend. Groups like the American Farm Brueau Federation, provide great opportunities to network with others, and get involved! Farm Bureau also has a Young Ag Professionals program in each state, hosting events, and leadership seminars, and providing numerous resources to young ag professionals.
Western Sports – Getting involved in your specific sports association will be a huge win networking-wise. Being a part of these organizations will present you with opportunities to meet folks with the same passions as you, from all over the country, and possibly the world! Attending different events throughout the year is a great chance to meet people!
Western Lifestyle – Attending a retail market like the Western & English Sales Association (WESA) market, is a fantastic way to meet others within the western lifestyle space. Whether they are boutique owners, marketers, or work in sales, your network is bound to grow at an event like this!
Ag Business – If you’re in an ag business-related field, you have one of the best chances to grow you network! Make sure you’re attending all of the conferences and conventions in your industry, because those give you the best chance of meeting people. If your job also includes an annual Personal Development Stipend, make sure you’re using that to attend an event where you’re surrounding yourself with those who have an interest in ag + western, but may be outside of your exact sector in the industry–that way you’re widening your network!
Maintaining Your Network
One of the most (if not the most) important elements of networking is following up. If you meet someone at an event and they give you their contact information, reach out with a short email afterward. If you both gushed over your love for Mexican food, make a restaurant recommendation. Little actions like this will show you were genuinely interested in the conversation! Below we have created a short list of examples you can use to maintain your network and ensure you are fostering your professional relationships.
-If you see a connection is hosting an event, send them a note wishing them luck.
-Wish them a Happy Birthday.
-Reach out and congratulate them if you see they’ve been promoted.
-If you see an article that reminds you of them or something they are interested in, send it to them.
-If they shared a problem with you, share a solution.
-In past conversations, they’ve shared that they are huge Dallas Cowboys fans, so congratulate them on a Cowboys win.
Maintaining networks doesn’t have to be hard, but it will take time and thoughtfulness.
We hope this has given you the confidence you need to start building, growing, and maintaining your professional network. To ensure your online presence is ready to be viewed by your professional network, check out our blog post How to Use Social Media to Your Advantage When Job Hunting.