Professional networking refers to any intentional relationship-building activity for the purpose of achieving one's career objectives. These objectives vary depending on where someone is in their professional journey. Fresh graduates often use networking to find a job or meet someone who can recommend them for one. Networking allows them to get their foot in the door without much experience. As you advance in your career, networking becomes less about job hunting and more about building connections, expanding knowledge, and sharing resources.
Establishing connections in the field through networking helps you source and coordinate the delivery of these services more efficiently, especially at the beginning of your career.
Technology makes it possible to network effectively online. Even digitally, however, it's important to maintain a personal connection. Networking builds relationships of trust, which can only be established on a person-to-person basis. As a social worker, you know that clients often need several different types of services, not all of which are accessible at once. Establishing connections in the field through networking helps you source and coordinate the delivery of these services more efficiently, especially at the beginning of your career.
Different Types of Professional Networks in Social Work
You may not be aware of it, but you likely engage in a type of networking in your workplace. Operational networking refers to the type of workplace connections you establish with colleagues, superiors, and subordinates. It adds depth and builds strong working relationships. As important as this may be for day-to-day operations, you will also need to network outside your immediate work environment. Personal networking provides breadth and reach by including useful connections for current and future potential interests. This type of networking often occurs at professional networking events.
A third type of networking, strategic networking, provides leverage by connecting you to influencers and stakeholders who can support future goals, both for yourself as a professional and for the organization or company in general. Social work is a collaborative enterprise. Building strong operational, personal, and strategic social work networks benefits not only your career but your clients as well.
Networking Events in Social Work
Several regional and national social work associations hold annual conferences throughout the year. These events provide excellent networking opportunities for social workers. The National Association of Social Workers hosts a yearly conference that features trainings, talks, workshops, and the chance to earn continuing education units for licensure renewal. Successful networking for social workers often begins by joining a professional association. This is especially true if you're new to the social work arena either as a fresh graduate or as a mid-career professional coming from a non-social work field. Keep in mind that these conferences are not career fairs. Don't hand out copies of your resume and avoid asking someone for a job or an interview outright, even if that is your main reason for attending the event.
Elevator Pitches in Social Work
An elevator pitch is a 30-second oral summary of who you are, what you do, and how your services benefit the listener. Your pitch must come across as natural and unrehearsed, so practice saying it repeatedly. If you come across as insincere, you may lose the opportunity to establish a connection. Social workers are not in the field for money. They sincerely desire to help people live honest, more productive lives. Make sure this passion and desire to help others resonates clearly in those 30 seconds.
Social Networking Sites for Social Workers
LinkedIn is the most popular online professional networking site, and some social work organizations maintain active LinkedIn groups. Several other sites cater specifically to the social work community, offering a mix of online newsletters, blogs, and digital magazines. These sites provide a forum for an exchange of ideas, information, job tips, best practices, and resources. Online connections can be just as lasting and useful as the ones you make in a live networking event despite the lack of in-person interaction. Building relationships through networking takes time, whether you connect online or face-to-face.
Attending social work networking events can be nerve-wracking, especially if you're new to them. Remember that networking is a skill that improves with practice. Follow the tips below and you may discover that networking for social work management can be enjoyable and professionally rewarding as well.
Be Fully Engaged
There is nothing as flattering or memorable as receiving another person's undivided attention. People may not recall the exact topic of their conversation with you, but they will remember you as attentive and engaging. Often, that's enough to open doors.
Offer to Help
Offer to do something for the person you want to connect with and follow through. It can be as simple as emailing a link to a site they expressed an interest in during your conversation. They will remember you as a reliable person who delivers on their word.
Come across as a real person instead of just another job seeker. You don't need to share your deepest secrets, but tell people about your interests and ask about theirs as well. You want people to want to connect with you. This rarely happens if they find you one-dimensional.
Learn as much as you can about as many of the influencers who will be at the event so you can ask intelligent questions and engage in meaningful conversations. You can often learn much of what you need to know online.
Strike a balance between being fully engaged with someone you're having a conversation with and meeting other people. This especially holds true if your main reason for attending is to expand your professional network. If you attend an event with colleagues, avoid sticking together as a pack.
Networking Event "Do's" for Social Workers
You stay focused when you attend a networking event with clear objectives in mind. It's almost impossible to connect with everyone during a networking event. Your goals help you select the people you engage with in a more meaningful way, without shutting everyone else out.
A networking event may have a social aspect, but it is not a social occasion. Most events have a business casual dress code, so follow it. As a social worker, it is important to be seen by your peers and clients as someone who is respectable and upright. Make sure your networking attire reflects this.
Bring Business Cards
You can often learn how many attendees are expected by contacting the event's organizers. Be sure to inquire as close to the date as possible so you get a more accurate headcount. Bring more business cards to the event than the expected number of attendees so you won't run out.
You connect with people by engaging in conversations, not monologues. Hold up your end of the conversation without monopolizing it. Keep your replies brief yet informative, and always listen to what the other person is saying instead of planning a clever reply.
Follow Up on Connections
Don't wait longer than 72 hours to follow up on the connections you make at a networking event. Refer to the topic you discussed during your conversation and thank them for their time.
Networking Event "Don'ts" for Social Workers
Distribute Paper Copies of Your Resume
A networking event is not the same as a career fair, and you are not expected to bring, much less distribute, copies of your resume. If someone requests one, tell them you'll email it to them and do so as soon as possible.
Use a Shotgun Approach
Establishing a connection with a handful of people ultimately expands your professional network better than simply handing out your business cards to everyone in the room. If you fail to establish a connection with someone, having your business card or following up after the event will yield little result.
Interrupt or Talk Over Others
Interrupting or talking over others is rude. It has no place in any social setting and specially not at a professional networking event. Other attendees may remember you if you talk too loudly or act rudely, but it will not be to your advantage.
It may help to attend a networking event with colleagues, especially if you're first-time attendees. Remember that few networking events are make-it-or-break-it occasions. It may take a few tries to perfect your networking skills, but if you learn even one lesson from every event you attend, you'll be ahead of the pack.
Neglect to Follow Up on Connections
Although your professional life as a social worker is busy, don't miss opportunities to follow up on connections you make at networking events. Failing to follow up reflects poorly on your networking skills and on you as a social work professional as well.