For Ona Ekhomu, networking comes relatively easy. In fact, Ekhomu says networking helped him quickly rise through several companies, and land his current job as director of financial consulting at World Financial Group. “When it comes to the workplace,” he says, “it’s all about learning how to be people-conscious. It keeps on opening new doors.”

You can do it, too.

Here are five essential rules for ensuring your network will take you places you want to be.

1.Start Networking Before You Need it

Most professionals don’t do enough networking and their worst business networking mistake is that they don’t build a professional network until they really need one – and that’s a bit late. Seasoned networkers can smell the stench of desperation from across the room.

Tip-offs ranging from a panicked look in the eyes to a portfolio brimming with resumes will send them running in the other direction. On the other hand, by networking when you have no ulterior motive, you can begin to build relationships and a reputation for being generous rather than self-serving.

2. Create an elevator pitch

Before you even think about networking, it’s vital to create an “elevator pitch,” a 30-second introduction of yourself and what you do. That way, you can succinctly let recruiters and potential hiring managers you want to work for know your exact value.

Sounds easy, right?

Not always.

Tim Wackel, a sales trainer, says that most people going into networking situations are unprepared to deliver their elevator pitch. When some people are on the spot, he says, they “blather out some nonsense” in a lengthy script about work. To avoid this pitfall, Wackel suggests rehearing a concise, general overview.

“Stop trying to be interesting and work on being interested. Walk out of there knowing more about others than others know about you.”

Ultimately, when you deliver an elevator pitch, give the other person a headline. “We’re looking for an invitation to continue the conversation,” Wackel says. And the goal should be for the other person to say, “‘Hey, I’m interested, tell me a little bit more.’”

3. Use relevant

resources to improve your networking skills

Networking may come naturally to some people, but if you need to give yourself a crash course, take advantage of resources around you.

Ekhomu bought some books on how to master networking, and joined organizations like Toastmasters, which help people get comfortable speaking publicly. “No one ever finishes school as a ready-made product,” he says. “Some people think, ‘Oh I’m done, I don’t have to do anything to advance myself.’ Trust me, everybody can learn something new.”

Before you go to an event, whether a conference, a happy hour, or a professional dinner, do your homework. Scan the conference agenda to see who will be on key panels. Then, make a short list of people you want to meet. Do a little research on them, and think about questions you’ll want to ask so the conversations are informed and meaningful.

4. Open your heart

Although Ekhomu has had great luck making connections in his career, he’s also faced certain obstacles as a person of color. You can overcome these challenges with diligent work. “Did I run into racism and bigotry? Of course,” he says. “Some people can be less tolerant, and you just have to shy away from them. The key is just being open from the get-go and learning to blend in and connect. You’ll find that a lot of people are willing to work with you.”

From there, it’s all about relationship-building to enhance your network.

“It doesn’t matter if people are above you or at the same level or beneath you, it’s just about making new connections and finding things that rhyme together like similar interests,” Ekhomu says. “You build a relationship, people know people, and they can help you advance.”

5. Forget your personal agenda.

While you may be tempted to network just to land a job or talk to people you normally wouldn’t have access to, that’s a mistake. Instead, make it your goal to be open, friendly and honest, and to forge connections between people who may be able to help each other. Generosity is an attractive quality and it’s something special that people will remember about you.

6. Never dismiss anyone as unimportant.

Make it your mission to discover the value in each person you talk to. Ask questions and listen with interest. Don’t make the mistake of discounting people due to their titles. Someone you meet may “just” be a clerk, but they may have valuable connections or knowledge you’d never learn about if you’d dismissed them.

Then, when the conversation ends, remember what that person has to offer as you move to the next.

Connect the dots.

Once you begin to listen to people and learn what they can bring to the table, you’ll start realizing how one person in the room may be able to help another. Make it a point to connect people you feel have something of genuine value to each other. When you go out of your way to make those potentially promising connections, you’re doing your part to make the networking event a success.

7. Keep it professional on social media

While world-wide is not local, it is the new networking. It is also easier for people who may be uncomfortable in a face-to-face setting. Just don’t use it as a substitute for business networking in person.

Remember, if you want people to take you seriously in the business world, spend some time cleaning your social media accounts. Online profiles are now one of the first things potential employers look at to get a view of how you carry yourself. So keep it authentic, but professional.

People make snap judgments in the first five to seven seconds of meeting someone or seeing their online presence.

8. Step away from the snacks

Let’s be honest—one of the best things about networking events is the free food and drinks. But there’s a very fine line you don’t want to cross here, and it’s directly related to those freebies. Wackel often sees people at these events eating and drinking way too much. Food and drink may be a way to relieve the pressure of meeting strangers, but they may also be a barrier to creating new relationships.

“It’s hard to network with somebody who keeps shoveling food into their mouth,” Wackel says.

Be in the moment. It will get you places you may never have imagined.

“Don’t blow those opportunities, because you never know,” Wackel says. “You may be one introduction away from the job of your dreams.”

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