Building professional networks is important to the success of your career and can raise your own profile along with that of your organisation. It can open career doors and opportunities as well as providing professional support. Networking is something we can sometimes see as an add-on to our busy role rather than a part of it. However, it is advisable to embrace networking opportunities as a way to benefit and develop your career and learn about business opportunities for your school. Being involved in many aspects of ELT provides a broader knowledge of the overall profession. Being an academic manager shouldn’t stop you from attending marketing or business development events and being involved in those circles, too. Here are 10 tips on how to network successfully and develop your career.
1 Getting out and about
Join local groups. Some may be industry-specific, but there will be others, such as the Chamber of Commerce and local business networks, which can also provide useful contacts. Joining, of course, is only the first step. It is important to then make time to attend events and talk to people. Set yourself a goal, for example, to attend one event every two months and within that a sub goal to speak with five people during an event.
2 Talking to people
Overcome shyness. This is easier said than done sometimes, but remember that this is a professional situation, and you often find yourself doing things that are not easy in various other aspects of your role. One way of easing social awkwardness is to think of a few open-ended questions to ask when you first meet someone. For example, ‘Tell me more about your company/your role/a project that you are working on’ or ‘How did you get into this industry/line of work?’ Show interest, ask questions, give information about yourself and look for common links to keep the conversation going. Politely excuse yourself and move on when you feel the conversation is coming to a natural end. People are not generally offended because, at the end of the day, everyone is there to make contacts.
3 The basics of networking
When meeting people for the first time, ensure you have your business cards. When receiving a business card, don’t just put it in your pocket; use it to lead into conversation about the other person’s job or organisation. Keep the conversation professional, remembering that you are an ambassador for your organisation, but do also try to show an interest in the person themselves rather than just talking shop. People will remember you more if there is a mutual interest, such as a love for a certain type of sport or a country you have both worked in.
4 Getting known
Put yourself forward for things. Becoming known in the industry is good for your reputation and can also be satisfying. There may be opportunities to become involved in multi-school projects or to sit on committees. Time allowing, such opportunities are rewarding: they enhance your reputation and may lead to further career opportunities. You are also flying the flag for your school and raising its profile, while often giving something back to ELT in building the reputation and professionalism of the industry through projects, committees and cross-school groups.
5 Sharing ideas and working together
Be active in local teaching organisations and willing to share best practice (within reason). Get to know other local schools. It can even be beneficial to organise joint events or arrange to take on joint projects. Invite your peers in other organisations to visit you and ask to visit them. This can be a time to show off and be proud of who you are as a school. Your friendly competitors will not replicate your school and your selling points in a visit, so do not be overprotective. Just remember, you and your school have an identity because of you and your colleagues. Somebody else will do things their way, so just embrace making contact, visiting, collaborating and sharing ideas.
6 Moving out of your area of expertise
Put yourself forward to be involved in events or organisations that are not strictly your department. For example, if you are an academic manager, you could occasionally offer to attend student fairs to understand how that aspect of your school works. Clients like to speak to the non-sales and non-marketing people about the product; moreover, it gets you known in a different environment. This, in turn, gives you more insight into different aspects of your school and the industry. Moving out of one’s area of expertise works both ways; marketing managers and other administrative staff will benefit from the opportunity to observe classes and talk to teachers.
7 Moving out of your comfort zone
When attending a conference, put yourself forward to present a talk or workshop. This may put you out of your comfort zone, but what is the worst thing that can happen? What you will probably find is that you get a real buzz and a sense of achievement. It is also the best way of becoming known by others and provides conversation points when you meet attendees following your talk.
“Networking is something we can sometimes see as an add-on to our busy role rather than a part of it. However, it is advisable to embrace networking opportunities as a way to benefit and develop your career and learn about business opportunities for your school.”
8 Following up
When meeting people, never miss an opportunity to identify areas of common ground that might lead to some type of future collaboration. With this in mind, we should note the importance of the follow-up. Be sure to send an email following the meeting, summarising any work-related business opportunities that were discussed. This should be done soon after the meeting while the contact is still ‘warm’. Keep a note of any personal information about your contacts that may be useful when following up and if you have future contact. This will also help you build that relationship from your initial email.
9 Building relationships
Think about your interpersonal skills. Don’t be too formal and businesslike during the meeting and also in the follow-up. Your tone should be similar in both. Most importantly, be yourself and remember people are generally nice and friendly. If possible, invite contacts to visit your school and learn more about who you are. At the same time, try to be sensitive to your potential contact’s priorities: if they seem to be less interested in collaborating than you are, they won’t appreciate being pushed.
10 Giving something back
ELT is a very empathetic, people-focused profession. Think about what you can give back to enhance the profession and also to help less fortunate students. This broadens your reach in your network and also as a school. It can lift your profile and lead others to do the same. Get involved in charity work if possible. Arrange a few all-staff charity events, provide some scholarship places to students, get involved in the local community. You will find staff are motivated and it is a way of raising your profile and that of your school’s for a very good cause.
This article is based on one of the 50 units which appear in the forthcoming publication ETpedia Management. It’s another valuable resource in the ETpedia series with 500 tips, ideas and activities on managing in ELT. The book is written by Keith Harding, Robert McLarty and Fiona Dunlop.
Fiona is the co-author of ETpedia Management, published by Pavilion ELT in June 2019. Find out more about ETpedia Management here.
She is the Principal at Wimbledon School of English, London, one of the oldest independent language schools in the UK. She has over 30 years’ experience in Teacher Training, Business and Soft Skills Training, and Academic Management. She holds an MA in Psychology and an English UK/Trinity Diploma in ELT Management. She spent several years working in Cairo and in Rio/Sao Paulo before returning to London in 1997, where she has been involved in all aspects of ELT management and training. Wimbledon School of English is currently named as the number 1 school in the UK out of over 500 schools according to British Council inspection reports.