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On The Job

Holiday Networking Tips for Every Stage of Your Career

Whether you're a new grad or senior manager, the holidays are an ideal time to perfect your business networking skills.

The holidays can be hectic, but a busy social schedule is also fertile ground for business networking. Between lunches, office parties, school concerts, worship-related events and other social gatherings, you may come into contact with dozens or even hundreds of new people during the month of December alone. Take full advantage.

SEE ALSO: SLIDE SHOW: 7 Holiday Office Party Blunders

Some of those interactions could prove beneficial to your career in 2012, whether you plan to embark on a job search or move up the corporate ladder at your current employer. So how will you handle the various networking opportunities over the holidays?

The types of networking situations in which you’re likely to find yourself will vary depending on your career stage, as will the business and social etiquette. This guide to holiday networking will help you navigate these situations whether you’re a new grad, a mid-level manager or a senior executive.

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Just Starting Out: New College Grads

If you’re just out of school and looking for work, make it a point to attend as many networking events as possible hosted by your school’s alumni association. That could put you into contact with key people, such as a potential mentor or someone with a great first job opportunity, in your field of interest. Prepare a few conversation starters beforehand to help alleviate any awkward moments associated with trying to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. For example, “So, how are you connected to this event?” or “Are you an alum? I’m James Smith. And you?”

The next step is to get your short intro down pat. It shouldn’t be a canned speech, but rather a casual explanation of your situation with an aspirational twist at the end. You could say, “I graduated in June with a degree in finance. Right now, I’m working at a department store to earn some money while I’m on the career hunt. I’m really interested in finance jobs with manufacturing companies -- I was almost an engineer and am fascinated by mechanical things. What about you?”

In addition to alumni events, nearly every trade association and industry roundtable hosts some sort of holiday mixer. Some are free for attendees, while others may cost. Check for a roster of networking events either in your local newspaper or in business trade publications and select a few to attend that fit your budget and taste (some may require formal wear, while others are more casual). Also consider a one-on-one meet-up via a coffee, lunch or dinner with a family friend, local alumnus or well-known business person. Doing this will allow you to pick their brains on a more personal level about how they got to where they’re at in their careers and what you could be doing better to help snag your dream job.

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Keep in mind that you will not generate a job-search lead with every interaction and that not every event you attend will leave you with a clear and measurable business win. Networking is like planting seeds. You’re building your mojo, your credibility and interpersonal skills with every conversation.

Working Your Way Up: Young Careerists

By now, you’ve been in your first or second job for a couple of years and have a career story to tell on top of: “I studied this and that, am interested in yada yada yada, and I’d like to do X.” You’ve got some trajectory to share as you meet new people. You’ve also got valuable contacts and advice to lend other people, so you’re not always on the receiving end of your networking relationships.

The holidays present the ideal time for you to help others build up their professional and social circles. You have a network of friends and business acquaintances from your work and “real life” worlds who should know one another. Organize a holiday lunch for four to five of them. Be sure to choose smart, interesting people to invite. Your friends will be very grateful to you for the connections and will likely return the favor when the opportunity presents itself.

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When you meet new people at the various events you’ve been invited to, make it a point to share your career history -- it’s by far the most important part of your personal brand -- as easily and confidently as possible. Remember to condense your story into a short intro for the benefit of the people you are meeting for the first time. Toss out any corporate speak and acronym-filled terms, such as “I’m a BPO consultant with a pretty big custom ERP reseller.” Saying something like that will either mystify or frustrate the people you’re just meeting who don’t know your industry’s jargon.

If you’re job hunting or contemplating it -- at this stage in your career, it’s natural to want to take things to the next level -- remember that the walls between organizations and networks are very thin. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to use holiday networking situations to put feelers out there, but if you’re too free with the discussion of what should be confidential information -- such as your interview next Thursday with Company X, which happens to be a direct competitor of your current employer -- it could prove disastrous. Use major discretion when divulging job-search details to anyone other than your core group of trusted professional and personal friends.

Getting Back in the Mix: Mid-Level Managers and Beyond

You’ve worked very hard for a lot of years, and you may feel that you have already grabbed the brass ring -- or that you are still working insanely hard to stay afloat. Either way, holiday networking is a huge topic for professionals at the mid level and beyond because so many don’t do it with regularity throughout the year. When you’re already overbooked, have strong friendships and professional relationships established and have not-for-profit boards and volunteer organizations clamoring for your time, you might not find generalized networking useful. That’s a mistake.

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A major networking issue for older professionals is the cohesion of the career story they share with new people they meet. And no wonder -- you haven’t had to “pitch” yourself in a long time. Even still, your story is your brand and you should always be able to share -- without any hesitation -- your professional background with new business acquaintances. With that said, you need to make sense of your career story before attending a single event. Get a journal and write down what you’d like to say in your self-introduction, such as who you are, what you do, some of the companies you’ve previously worked for and key successes with your current employer. Putting it down on paper and reading it aloud will help you work out any kinks.

Next, decide which networking events exist that would be beneficial for you at this stage. If you’re job hunting, think about the local employers that would be interested in hiring someone with your expertise to help expand their businesses. Even if you aren’t looking for a new job but rather to grow your personal brand and network, think about the kinds of conversations you want to be having in terms of professional growth come mid 2012. Keep those ideas in mind as you network your way through the holiday party circuit. No doubt, networking is a two-way street and your job is to learn enough about the people you’re meeting to be able to help them. But keeping the thought “I would be very grateful right now to get the advice of a well-connected headhunter in my field” at the top of your mind is hugely helpful in your networking, too.