Growing your professional network is one of the top reasons for participating in any executive education class or program. After all, your professional network is how you find new job opportunities, keep abreast of industry news, and position yourself as an industry expert.
Online classes are one thing, but how do you grow your professional network digitally? Most online exec ed programs promote the opportunity to network with other participants as a major benefit of the program. Virtual networking opportunities are no different and include such offerings as discussion boards, live discussion forums, breakout groups, and virtual happy hours.
The connections you make are as important as the education itself. How does your digital handshake measure up for these virtual encounters? How are you going to make the connections that matter?
Read on to learn our 7 tips for maximizing your digital presence in online executive education.
#1 Optimize Your Linked In Profile
Love it or hate it. Linked In is essential as a tool for growing your professional network. It’s where you meet and connect with potential contacts, stay in touch with current and former colleagues, recruit employees, are recruited yourself, advance your professional stature, and create your personal brand.
Therefore, the first step in virtual networking is to make your Linked In profile stand out. It’s your 1-minute elevator pitch. Be thoughtful when filling in the fields. Don’t do a data dump to get it over with. Remember, your aim is to increase your “street cred.” That way when your online exec ed classmates research you (and of course they will), you can emerge as one of the “cool kids.”
#2 Attend any and all Virtual Events Offered
Executive education programs typically offer inside- and outside- of class networking opportunities. These are usually break out groups, speakers, discussion forums, happy hours, etc.
Online programs are no different. It’s just that the networking has moved to your screen. Given that the pandemic forced all events online, this is now not the mental stretch it once was. Everyone's a little more used to and comfortable with talking to headless bodies on a screen.
The trick is how to make the most of it.
It’s a given that you should attend as many virtual conferences and speaker sessions as possible. After the events, you can decide whether to reach out to the speakers or other participants. It’s really no different than networking in an expo hall or an awards luncheon.
You just need to make the effort.
For this reason, you might feel your soft skills could use a little polishing. A communication skills course can go a long way to refresh your confidence to work the virtual (or live) room.
#3 Build Relationships With Your Classmates and Teachers
You may be staring at a screen, but try to remember you’re participating in a class. So be sure to participate!
It’s vital you take your digital handshake forward and project yourself beyond the screen. Look directly into the camera when you speak, smile, and attempt to convey your humanity.
When you’re online, be “on.” Be that person who engages in small talk at the start of video calls while you wait for the meeting to start. Even go so far as to make comments and conversation on chat during the meeting.
Join the conversation.
BUT don’t be the one speaking just to hear yourself speak (we know how we feel about those people). Try to be active. Active in this case means making thoughtful, insightful comments or questions.
That said, you don’t need to give a treatise or a Jerry McGuire mission statement to get attention. A simple emoji response or gif in the chat is enough to lay the foundation of a potential friendly connection across the digital miles.
Take advantage of chat programs like Lync and Slack to make connections, just as you would in your daily office routine. Practice the same during Zoom or Teams video meetings.
If there’s no (or no adequate) discussion forum already existing, create a Slack channel. Here, you and your classmates can take part in informal discussions where you:
- Share relevant content
- Add on to discussions from class
- Ask others for class notes
- Contribute to stress management or wellbeing tips
- Share some virtual trivia ideas or exchange pics of your pets for a laugh or an energy boost
- Simply ask if anyone caught the latest blockbuster
AND don’t worry if you’re generally an introvert. In fact, introverts excel within the digital world. You are already an expert at watching, listening, and processing. Your contributions shine through with quality not quantity.
#4 Make the First Move- Contact People You’d Like to get to Know Better
I know it may feel like it, but this isn’t dating. Your world won’t be crushed if s/he rejects your advances to connect. Someone has to make the first move. If you want to leverage your online exec ed experience and grow your network, you’re going to need to put yourself out there.
You’re in an online program and disconnected from a physical classroom. That means you need to actually construct those “chance” meetings to simulate the ad-hoc corridor chit-chat you’re missing.
You need to communicate intentionally.
Take advantage of the medium. A digital introduction is far less intimidating than an in-person one. Even introverts thrive in a digital environment.
So what are you waiting for? Send a private, personalized message to classmates, speakers, or teachers who you think are interesting and get the conversation started.
#5. Try Planning Virtual Social Interactions
Messages are nice but sometimes you want a little more social interaction. It’s the informal conversations that help build rapport. What to do when your classmates are spread across the country?
Virtual Coffee, Cocktail, or Lunch
Network-building in real life is pretty straightforward-- “Hey, we should meet for a coffee/ drink/ lunch. Are you free on Tuesday?”
In the digital world, it can look very similar. Inviting a classmate for a personal, virtual meetup after class can keep a conversation going. After all, everyone needs to eat, and it’s not often someone will not have 20 minutes to share a beverage and a bit of conversation.
Virtual Walk and Talk Meetings
If you want to spice things up, you might suggest a virtual “walk and talk.” These are particularly easier to arrange when you’ve already built up a bit of rapport with the person.
You can use a common interest or even a pain point as the core theme for an activity you’ll simultaneously do together. To illustrate: Perhaps you both have a daily 10,000 step goal neither of you seem to be reaching. Or, maybe you’re both avid cyclists.
Participating in the activities together but apart-- simultaneously speaking by phone, yet individually geo-located-- injects specialness into the moment and organically builds the relationship.
Getting outside and away from your desks lends a novel way to cultivating more meaningful interactions. They even have an added multitasking benefit while incorporating more (not less) time for conversation.
#6. Be Authentic
Authenticity is the buzzword of late. It permeates both personal and professional domains. It simply means that we, as people, desire genuineness from others (even companies) in our dealings with each other.
When you create a personal connection, it adds to the authenticity of your professional relationships and garners trust. These then become the trusting relationships you will later call upon for a recommendation, new work opportunity, or advice.
When you offer authentic comments on public conversations (like in social media), you strengthen your professional relationships. Growing your network, then becomes an easy outgrowth of that simple act.
Wondering how to build your digital authenticity? Here are some tips to apply to your communications:
- Be an active listener
- Be someone who interacts with thoughtfulness
- Be able to show your vulnerability
- Be gracious
- Be curious
- Be emotionally intelligent (maybe some training in this area can help)
#7 Stay in Touch
Keeping in touch with your digital network sets in motion the ability to ask for advice, recommendation, favors… you get the idea.
It may seem basic, but creating connections only takes you halfway. Virtual networking must include maintaining the relationships you created-- with authenticity. This step is pivotal if you want to nurture your professional network and leverage its power.
Your LinkedIn presence helps tremendously here. Everything you do on the platform helps keep you top of mind to your digital connections. The platform makes it easy to share articles, kudos, or job changes. It’s also very easy to connect in a personalized and authentic way.
By creating a thoughtful virtual networking approach, you can connect with your classmates authentically. Some tips for attending to your professional network:
- Comment on the person’s social media posts
- Send an occasional email to say hello and check their status
- Share with them content or information you know they have an interest in
These digitally-forged connections help produce and enhance both your professional and personal relationships. The relationships that will ultimately make your career goals a reality.
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