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Networking has often been touted as an essential tool in an emerging professional’s toolbox. Yet, there are perceptions floating around that networking can sometimes feel ‘forced’, challenging for the introverts out there, and even ‘icky’ at times, as shared by LSA students who engage with the Hub.
Here to help demystify networking and to share workarounds is 1992 LSA alum and established mentor David Sanders, an industry expert who has been working for years to pass down his expertise to students through the power of mentorship.
With testimony regarding his own experiences with networking and mentorship, David answers questions like “What is networking, and how does it relate to mentorship?”, “What is proper networking and mentorship etiquette?”, and “Why are these practices so important for students?”
“Mentorship was not only invaluable in the beginning of my career journey, it remains essential today.”
Understanding the difference between networking and mentorship
David began his career journey with an English undergraduate degree from LSA, moving on to Georgetown’s law school soon after graduating. After completing law school, David spent a few years working at a firm that merged into Foley & Lardner LLP, where he’s been for over 21 years. He currently serves as Office Managing Partner of the DC office and Vice-Chair of the firm’s Business Law Department.
Law runs in David’s family. He identifies his first mentor as his father, a respected private practice lawyer, but also attributes his learning to other professionals who he encountered along the way.
“Mentorship has been invaluable not only in the beginning of my career journey, but even today,” David affirms. “I’ve had three critical mentors: my dad who has been my biggest professional mentor, and is always been there to answer questions since he’s been through it all; a mentor at my firm from whom I learned how to negotiate tough issues while always treating people with decorum and dignity; and an individual I befriended after 40, when he was close to 70, who was gifted at looking at macroeconomic factors. For me the real lesson from these mentorship experiences is that you take mentorship where you find it—you realize that you're going to learn a little bit from everyone you encounter along the way, and one of the keys is to pay it forward and serve as a mentor to others.”
David credits his father though for foundational lessons that shaped his professional and personal philosophy.
“From the time I was little, I was told there's always going to be someone with more money than you and someone who’s going to be smarter than you,” David explains. “You control your integrity and how hard you work—and that message has always sunk in.”
The art of networking, he affirms out of a wealth of experience, is not goal-less. He advises students to take a strategic approach when going out there and building connections.
“My goal out of every interaction in networking is to come away with one thing I can follow up with that person on,” David affirms. “If it's business related, that's perfect, but even if I can't find anything business related to connect on I’ll focus on something personal. Then, after I meet with them, I write on the back of their business cards whatever that thing was. So, invariably, when I see something in the news, I'll send them a short email saying, ‘Hey, I saw this and I thought of you. I hope you're doing well. Would you like to get coffee? Would you like to go to lunch?’ And I use that to build relationships."
"Take mentorship where you find it—you're going to learn a little bit from everyone you encounter along the way.”
David goes on to clarify that mentorship opportunities are created out of networking; a deeper, specific-type of professional relationship.
“When I go to a meeting, or when I go to a networking event, I know I'm networking—I'm not looking for mentorship,” David emphasizes. “Networking happens with a much broader audience. On the other hand, mentorship is narrow and comes after networking.”
For students looking for tailored guidance, David emphasizes that it takes time to establish and nurture those initial connections but it pays off; networking is the catalyst to a more foundational mentoring relationship.
“If I’m building that relationship with someone that happens to be junior to me and they reciprocate, then I may eventually raise the subject of mentorship. I’ll typically extend the invite with an open like, ‘I'm happy to be your mentor if you're looking for mentorship, and if you want to count me among your mentors.’ If they express interest, then I’ll follow up and tell them I’d like to hear from them in about six weeks, when we’ll set up a time to chat and discuss X, Y, and Z.”
With the big ‘why’ of networking and mentoring set, we turned our attention to figuring out the ‘how’ for students: How to effectively network? What tools does LSA have to support in this process? What is good networking etiquette? How can you come prepared and make the most out of your mentorship connections?
Below, David provides the chronological steps to good networking.
If you know the individual or organization you’re connecting with, David identifies research as a critical first step to take prior to connecting. He emphasizes diligence, but not to an excess.
“Google is your friend, but do not stalk people,” he says. “Do not tell them you know their kids' birthdays, or the name of their dog. But they will expect that you've looked at their Linkedin profile. You know where they've worked, what schools they went to, what they follow. Linkedin is meant for business, and it’s right there for you. Anything you see on LinkedIn about someone is fair game; use that to connect and lead into other questions.”
David reminds students that first impressions are important in establishing relationships.
“Do your research and know who they are,” he affirms. “Again, the key is making sure in each encounter you're setting up the next encounter.”
2. Come with questions prepared.
You won’t always have a chance to research the individuals you connect with, but coming in blind to encounters is not an excuse for unpreparedness David emphasizes.
Instead, have a jar full of conversation starters ready to go.
David notes that he prepares questions and memorizes them in a flow chart style. He might start by asking someone about their career or what they do for fun. Or he may mention a recent life experience about himself before using that to ask an open-ended question on a similar topic. The topic could be a recent music concert or a cool travel experience; whatever plays to your strengths. The keys are to get the other person speaking. The more you listen, generally, the better you are doing. Don’t overstay the conversation and make notes immediately after the conversation concludes.
3. Be professional.
Professionalism is essential in any networking situation.
“Every networking event should be treated like a job interview,” David affirms.
Meaning: not only should you come prepared and ready to network, you should also dress the part.
“Nobody ever knows what the dress code is for any event anymore, so just try to go right down the middle of that dress code,” David advises. “You don't want to be too dressed up, and you don't want to be too underdressed. If you're not sure, err towards being overdressed: nobody's ever going to judge you for wearing a tie.”
He also recommends polishing your handshake, to ensure a positive first impression with both attire and introduction.
“Go to someone you trust and shake their hand, and ask if your grip is too soft or too tight,” David advises. “You don't want to have the vice grip but you also don't want to be the dead fish. The handshake communicates something important; it will be your first impression in almost every interaction.”
Another critical networking element to be aware of? Alcohol.
“I've seen many people negatively impact their careers due to an inability to control their alcohol intake,” David explains. “And that's why at every interaction I set up, I always offer a non-alcoholic option. I always say, ‘Would you like to get coffee or drinks?’
David also advises being alcohol-conscious at events, reiterating a few essential rules of thumb for networking.
“Don't be the first to get to the bar or punch table. Don't be the last to leave,” David recommends. “And if you ever find yourself dividing the number of drinks you've had by the number of the hours you've been there, it's time to leave. When I was that age, I had a two-drink maximum, and I would basically hold a beer or a glass of wine for an extended period of time. Remember, networking events are like job interviews so you need to behave in a professional way.”
4. Remember it gets easier.
David is cognizant that for anyone new to the working world, networking can be nerve-wracking and imposter syndrome can rear its head. His best advice? Start small, but you have to start.
“The key to networking is that the first step is the hardest, and every step after that gets a bit easier,” David affirms. “If it is something that you're dreading, the best advice I can give you is start by doing something you're comfortable with. Get your computer out, and write out why you want to network, and how you want to network; make lists of what careers and types of titles you’re curious about, or which kinds of companies you’re interested in. Start with that, and then you can move toward connecting with individuals whose experience aligns with the goals and questions in that doc.”
He also recognizes that adjusting to networking can be a bit more challenging for introverted students, but offers a work around.
“Practice among your friends,” David recommends. “This is something I recommend whenever you're going to do job interviews as well; have your friends ask you questions, ask each other the most absurd questions you've ever gotten in an interview. Practice, and listen to and rework your answer until it doesn't become forced, until you establish a few jokes, and you get comfortable. Then, you’re ready for anything.”
“Networking is a great thing… because at the end of the day if you’re in a rut and you do need help there are people that are willing to offer their time and support.”
A constant practice: Why students should network
Although David’s advice for students may ease the way, networking still requires focused time and energy from students, both in preparation and execution. Some may ask the question, is it really worth it? The short answer is yes.
The ultimate purpose of networking is oftentimes associated with securing job opportunities, but David also maintains that its other advantage is in creating meaningful mentoring relationships.
David has offered up his time as a mentor to LSA students through various channels for the past several years, and more recently offered advice to Natasha Shaghafi through the Hub’s Formal Mentorship Program. A brand-new 2022 graduate in Economics and Political Science, Natasha is currently transitioning to a role in the Bay area as an investment analyst. However, she wasn’t always so certain about her path.
When she connected with David in winter of 2022, Natasha was waiting on LSAT results, and seriously considering law school. Still, she was uncertain about her post-grad plans, and was looking for advice.
“I was pretty torn on what to do,” Natasha affirms. “And David just helped me talk through it—he advised me to dip my toes in and see if I’m happy where I’m at, before deciding whether to return to law school later. It was good life advice, and it helped me gain perspective as I was making that decision.”
As a mentor, David emphasizes the importance of connecting with individuals on a personal and professional level to gain a comprehensive understanding of their goals.
“Our conversations weren’t just about work,” Natasha affirms. “He was really encouraging about getting good personal experiences as well as work ones, like pushing me to consider going abroad and just getting out of my comfort zone.”
David also tailors his mentorship style based on his mentee’s needs. As a senior experienced with cold-calling, Natasha was able to come in with a specific ask, allowing David to play the role of a coach.
“Natasha was trying to choose between two paths after college, and I was able to help her kind of act as a sounding board to figure out what it was she wanted to do,” David explains. “And the amazing thing was by the end of the semester not only had she really figured out what she wanted to do, she found a job that was maybe not her first choice from a geographic perspective. But definitely a first choice from a subject/substantive expertise perspective.”
“The most important lesson I’ve learned since graduating is how far you get in life just by saying ‘Hi, How are you?’ everywhere you go… it makes a world of difference.”
With students who are newer to networking or less sure of what they’re looking for, David has a different approach.
“When I’m mentoring virtually rather than in-person, I’ve realized I need to come in with a game plan,” he explains. “So now what I do is I start with a little summary of what I'm about, and then I ask some leading questions: What are you majoring in? What do you want to do with your major? What are your plans for 5 years after college, 10 years after college? And then eventually those questions help us narrow down what kind of mentorship they’re looking for.”
Like David, Natasha is a believer in the power of networking. For her, networking has led not only to pivotal mentorship experiences, but it helped her secure a full-time job immediately after graduating from LSA. She encourages students to be brave and give it a try.
“When it comes to networking, one of the biggest things to remember is that the worst that can happen is that they won't answer you,” Natasha reiterates. “Networking is a great thing, because being friendly and making those connections really does pay off. At the end of the day if you’re in a rut and you do need help, there are people that are willing to offer their time and support, and even take risks for you.”
To facilitate always-on networking and mentoring, the Hub launched LSA Connect two years ago, an LSA-exclusive networking platform that Natasha and David used to connect. As an LSA student, you gain access to the LSA alum network as soon as you sign up, with additional supportive features like pre-written introductory messages, recommended connections, video calling, and detailed profile pages to help you discover potential mentors.
But regardless of your position on networking, Natasha and David both highlight the value of networking in your day-to-day life. Practice being friendly, meeting new people, and getting comfortable building an active network one person at a time.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned since graduating is how far you get in life just by saying ‘Hi, How are you?’ everywhere you go and then waiting for the answer,” David shares. “And when you do that sincerely, you end up starting conversations with everyone you run into. With some, the reward is friendly conversation but for others, it can lead to relationships that are great for your career or great for you personally. Instead of walking past people you don’t know, taking the time to be considerate, friendly, and asking them how they are makes a world of difference.”