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6 steps to successful "out-of-your-league" networking

Emilee Richardson is the president-elect for the Young Professionals Connection, and is theDC
marketing and communications coordinator at the Science Center of Iowa.

Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. as part of the Greater Des Moines Partnership's annual trip.

In case you don't know, each year, the Partnership takes roughly 200 business executives and community leaders to D.C. for the purpose of education and advocacy. Each year, the YPC president-elect is sent on the trip. This year, that privilege was mine.

This trip is truly unique. The Greater Des Moines Partnership represents more than 4,700 businesses and 150,000 employees in Central Iowa. And on this year's trip, 190 of us came together to represent one unified voice advocating for the issues most important to our region.

That's a powerful voice, wouldn't you agree?

The trip consisted of meetings, workshops and receptions... essentially, it was 60 straight hours of networking (which was evident by my lack of a voice on Friday).

Now, I’m no newbie to networking. But at the Iowa Congressional Reception on the first night, as I mixed and mingled my way around the room of seasoned business leaders, I realized that I was a little out of my league.

Networking is easy with your peers, but when it seems that everyone knows everyone - and everyone has been doing this since before you were born - it can be a little intimidating. I didn’t go all the way to D.C. for nothing, though, so I decided to dive in. And as I did, I found a pattern... one that weirdly resembled a military maneuver.

6 steps to successful networking, Top Gun style:

  1. Find a wingman. This way, you won't look really awkward while trying to accomplish the next several steps. Your wingman can be a friend or acquaintance. Preferably, your wingman will be someone who also is looking to meet a few of the movers and shakers in the room.

  2. Identify a target. In these situations, there are often people in the room who you know of but haven't officially met; or maybe there’s an acquaintance who you want to chat up or pitch an idea to. Find this person (or persons) in the room.

  3. Move into position. Many times, your target is already in a conversation. Prepare to network by meandering through the room with your wingman and positioning yourself within 10 feet of the target. This is important so that you will be able to swoop in as they're leaving a conversation or jump in during a lull. Avoid awkwardness by conversing with your wingman. Leave yourself available by glancing around the room. [Pro tip: Do not make eye contact with your target until you are ready to swoop. Otherwise, you'll blow your opportunity.]

  4. Make a smooth entrance. When you see your target moving away or notice a lull in conversation, make your move. If you know the person's name, follow these steps: (1) approach, (2) say the person's name and (3) say something along the lines of, "good to see you!" If you don't know the person's name, follow these instructions: (1) approach, (2) say something along the lines of, "I don't think we've met. I'm ____."

  5. Introduce your wingman. After initial hellos, introduce your wingman to the target with a simple, "Have you met ____?" There’s value in knowing people, and successful leaders know this. By making the introduction, you appear well-connected and gracious. Plus, you’re helping out your wingman, too!

  6. Make a graceful exit. This is the tough part. If your target doesn't initiate the exit, you can oftentimes be left with nothing more to say. A few strategies for a graceful exit: (1) excuse yourself to get another drink / check out the food, (2) say “well, it was really nice talking with you” and exchange cards or reiterate how you plan to follow-up. Always end with a firm handshake and by thanking them by name.

Note: While these tips are said with a hint of silliness, they are mostly accurate. Networking is a skill that can only be mastered with practice. It is good to have a few guidelines going in, but what works for me might not work for you. If you have other successful networking tactics, I’d love to hear!

-Emilee Richardson

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