Building a strong professional network is important for anyone in any industry. You never know when you are going to meet someone who could be a great asset to you and your career.
However, to say that you are "always networking" carries some negative connotations. While you can meet people who can help you get further in your career anywhere you go, that should never be your singular goal in starting a conversation with someone.
"Networking sounds like a means to an end and something you are 'out doing,'" said David Olk, CEO of Voray. "You should be using … gatherings of any sort to develop new authentic relationships and identify opportunities to be an advocate for those around you – whether it's a [social] event or the soccer sidelines."
With the holidays coming up, your company, family and friends will likely host parties with all kinds of people in attendance, which may seem like the perfect opportunity to grow your network – and it can be. But it must be done the right way to avoid giving the impression that you're only interested in how others can help you.
Here's how to develop and maintain authentic connections – which may or may not be used to advance your career someday – in informal settings.
Start by strengthening existing bonds
The best way to navigate social gatherings when your goal is to form new bonds and connections is to find someone you already know and start a conversation with them to catch up.
"Have a genuine conversation about things you both have in common, albeit children or arts or sports," Olk said. "Then work other people who look lost or awkward into the conversation. You always see them walking around or walking in. Just stick out a hand to shake."
"Mingle more, and if there are no assigned seats, have dinner at one table and dessert at another," added Jaime Klein, founder of Inspire Human Resources. "Use the relaxed environment … to your advantage by making several connections."
Seek out different types of people
Olk noted that spending time with people and getting to know them better is the true definition of "networking" – not pushing an agenda.
"Don't think of networking as selling your business or yourself," Olk added. "Think about a … party as your opportunity to be in the room with new people that you would love the chance to meet and identify ways you can be an advocate for them in the future."
If it's a work gathering, Klein suggests sitting next to a member of another team whom you normally wouldn't have the opportunity to chat with.
"Keep it brief, and use this 'meet and greet' to spark a more detailed conversation after the gathering," Klein said.
After the party, following up is the most important thing you can do to cultivate a relationship, said Brianna Elefant, chief revenue officer of Voray.
"Send a thank you note to the host – email is fine – then send a LinkedIn request with a personal note after the event to anyone new you met," she said. "If you have an email address, send them a note saying it was nice to connect at the event and that you hope to see that person again."
Klein seconded that notion: "If you say you're going to follow up with someone after a function, stick to your word."