A Recent Sustainability Grad Nails it on Successful Networking

By Jeff Chan, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s new Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program

“Networking isn’t everything, but it’s pretty much everything”


This is a phrase that I hear time in and time out when I speak with family, career advisors and practitioners as I hunt for opportunities as a newly-minted graduate of the inaugural Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MScSM) program at the University of Toronto. The search for opportunities is a difficult process for new graduates, something I can personally attest to. On the one hand, applying to external postings feels like a trip down the HR rabbit hole, while networking feels to many like a terrifying monster just waiting to be awakened. So the question on the minds of many new sustainability grads is this: how do I network? The answer might seem complicated, but it really boils down to 3 major things.

1) Know what you’re looking for

Picture this: you walk into an event full of people, from industry, to government, to non-profit. All you really have to go on are their name tags and their organizations. You know in the back of your mind that you want to make some meaningful connections at the event, so you slowly begin to approach groups of people. After some time, and many nervous handshakes you begin to have a solid conversation with someone – success! Then they ask you the dreaded “tell me about yourself, and tell me about the types of opportunities you are looking for”. What loaded questions! What do you even begin to say?

The dreaded question: “tell me about yourself, and the types of opportunities that interest you”.

This is where your level of preparation is crucial. You need to be able to sell yourself while also being honest and personable. What’s more, you need to be thoughtful and genuine in your answers. People love speaking with thoughtful, inquisitive and curious people – just think about the types of conversations that you enjoy. The only way to be prepared is to reflect on what you’re interested in and what you’re looking for beforehand.

…think about the types of conversations that you enjoy.

Your answer doesn’t need to be refined down to the bare bones, but it needs to be cohesive and, perhaps most importantly, relevant. Ask yourself questions like “what matters to me?” or “why am I passionate about this particular area?” Answering such questions for yourself will help cultivate a genuine sense of curiosity, both professionally and personally, which will steer you towards seeking information, and significantly increase your opportunity for meaningful conversation. In the end, you will come across as someone who is worth knowing/referring in the eyes of your conversational partner.

2) Follow-up. Always!

Ok. So you went to a networking event and absolutely nailed it with making new connections. You’ve got a stack of business cards, and likewise, you gave out a stack of business cards. What do you do now? I’ll start with what you should never do: put those cards aside like trophies. You need to follow-up with the people you met, because frankly, there is no use in simply accumulating business cards!

Accumulating business cards is a waste of time….without a follow up strategy.

I’ve been told by a few that business cards are only sheets of paper with a bunch of information on them. In other words, it isn’t worth much unless you do something proactive with it. Honestly, it would be an absolute waste of the time and effort you spent preparing to network if you fail to follow up. This is the opportunity to establish a relationship with the people you meet (which I’ll get into later), and to make yourself stand out in a large crowd. Beyond that, it’s an opportunity to let your new professional connections know that you appreciated their time and the conversations you had.

Common question: I want to continue my conversations with the people I’ve met, but how exactly do I follow-up?

Great question! This can be an intimidating task, especially when it’s someone you’ve just met. From my experience, people like speaking to other people – especially those that are genuine. So all you have to do is ask to meet again nicely, courteously and professionally, and 9 times out of 10, the answer will be a yes. What is also important here is the content of your message. The most obvious and tempting thing to ask is something like “can I have a job?” BIG MISTAKE!

I cannot stress this enough. Just like asking nicely and courteously for someone to share a bit more of their time with you to continue conversations will get you a second meeting 9 times out of 10, asking for a job will turn the person off 9 times out of 10. Shout out to Claire Westgate, my Placement Officer at MScSM, who used the analogy of a marriage: “you wouldn’t ask someone you met at a bar to marry you the next day would you? Then why would you ask someone you’ve just met for a job?”

So instead of asking for a job, simply ask to meet for a chat over coffee or lunch. If this doesn’t resonate with you immediately, think of it like this: The person you’re trying to meet with knows you’re a student/new graduate. Therefore, they know that you’re interested in networking, being mentored and finding a job. Typically, those professionals who have been in your shoes, and are working in areas that genuinely interest you, will be happy to help you – they’ll share advice, insights, and will often be quite happy to help play a role in shepherding you along your career path.

Typically, those professionals have been in your shoes, and will often be quite happy to help play a role in shepherding you along your career path.

When you’re actually meeting with the person, always remember to be inquisitive and curious. Those two things will go a long way to making meaningful conversation. And of course, be yourself and be genuine and honest – people like interacting with genuine, honest people.

3) Managing networks? More like managing relationships!

If there is one thing that has stood out to me as the most important component of a good networker, it’s your ability to manage relationships. I mentioned relationships in the previous section, and for good reason. To illustrate the point I’m trying to make here, I’ll use the example of LinkedIn. Don’t get me wrong, LinkedIn is a great professional tool for staying connected, however a distinction must be made here about the online network vs. the offline network. Here is a question I like to think about: if Person A has 2,000 connections on LinkedIn, and Person B has 100 connections on LinkedIn, who has the better network?

It’s not the number of people you know, but the quality of your relationships with people that matters.

At first glance, you would likely say that Person A has the better network for the simple reason that 2,000 is much larger than 100. Herein lies the difference between the online and offline network. You can have as many connections on LinkedIn as you want, but if you don’t invest time into establishing a relationship with your connections, are they truly part of your network, or are they simply people that you’ve met?

It’s not the number of people you know, but the quality of your relationships with people that matters, and as Dunbar’s Number suggests, the cognitive limit to the number of connections you can realistically maintain in a meaningful way is 150 – not even remotely close to 2,000.

…the most success comes from getting introductions to new people from other people that I’ve met.

Always remember that the people you meet at events or over coffee are just that: PEOPLE. So treat them like people you like being around. And if you don’t agree with what I’m saying, let me tell you that effective relationship management when it comes to your network will lead to great results. In my two years of vigorously going to events and meeting people for coffees, I’ve found that the most success comes from getting introductions to new people from other people that I’ve met.

Don’t believe me? Consider how you would respond if one of your friends asked you to meet someone they knew. I’m sure you would happily agree to meet since they are your friend. However in order to get to the point of receiving introductions, you need to have invested some time in building a relationship with the person who is making the introduction. Otherwise, you might as well do a cold call.

It’s important to note here that you NEVER want to harass people about connecting with you – this is a HUGE turn off for people. Send out a few emails to follow-up at most, and give the person you’re trying to reach some time to respond – remember that these are busy people! A good idea for general follow-ups is to share knowledge. If you see an interesting article or report, send it to some of the people you’ve met. This shows that you are inquisitive, and that you are interested in more than just milking them for information and connections. I’ll say it again, it isn’t the size of your network that matters, but it’s the quality of your network. Case in point, good networking = good relationship management.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”   —Harvey Mackay in Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty

Key Takeaways

In summary, here are the major pointers I have for current students, new graduates and young professionals alike when it comes to networking. Take these points with you the next time you go to network. Happy networking!

  • Good networkers are genuine and honest people who are reflective, inquisitive, curious, and clear about what they want, and clear about the value that a professional contact has, not simply for “future jobs”, but as mentors, advice-givers and future colleagues
  • Always remember to follow-up, even if it’s just a quick “thank you for our conversation, you helped me to understand more about the field”
  • NEVER ask for a job
  • Good networking involves good relationship management skills
  • The quality, not the size of your network, is what truly matters

To learn more about the U of T Sustainability Management Program as either a student or an industry partner – click here.
Jeffrey Chan is a Graduate Student in the University of Toronto’s new Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program.