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3 Tips to Level-Up Your Networking Game

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Science has proven: Traditional networking tends to make people feel dirty, figuratively and literally. CCI columnist and compliance author Mary Shirley offers three cheat codes to unlock effective professional networking.

Networking has been a big area of development for me. As a self-described introvert and shy individual, it’s one of the professional skill areas I’ve worked hardest at improving. 

But you need not be a total wallflower like me to feel less-than passionate about networking. In fact, in an experiment where people were asked to think about making friends at a party or making professional connections, the professional networking group said that the exercise made them feel dirty, so much so that they needed to use toothpaste or soap.

Based on my experiences and learnings in attempting to acquire and hone my networking abilities, here are three ways to network successfully.

Play the long game

Helping to administer Compliance Career Connection events during the height of the pandemic and co-host Boston compliance networking meet-ups over the past six years gave me some interesting insight into how a lot of people network, and it’s not pretty. When many lose their job or can no longer handle a toxic boss and/or poor workplace culture, they immediately sign up for networking opportunities, attend — and then as soon as they get a new job, they disappear. 

While I applaud folks for taking action when they are in a difficult situation, this approach doesn’t engender relationship building, which is really the point of networking. Otherwise, it would be called something like, “Allow me to benefit unilaterally and then run away.” (No wonder folks are feeling dirty if this is their concept of networking!)

At worst, this form of networking can leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who tried to assist a stranger who then ghosts the community after they have gotten what they wanted. What happens the next time you need help? 

”Not to be LinkedIn on main but when I was in college I thought “networking” meant going to really uptight events and putting on a facade but as I get older I realize that networking happens organically when you’re just nice to people and make friends without an agenda.” 

It’s in our interests to continue participating in a community and not just take when we need something. Some advice given by Kristy Grant-Hart, head honcho at Spark Compliance Consulting, in a “Great Women in Compliance” podcast episode, was to build your network before you need it. This is sound advice, and one way to help adhere to it is that before you ask something for someone, ideally, you will have already done them a service and helped them out in some way.

My advice, which builds off Kristy’s, is to aim to build genuine two-way relationships where each person sends the elevator back down and is in it for the long haul. With this approach, you will feel way less dirty.

Forget the small talk to establish deep bonds of connection

Networking is most successful when we are memorable to others and they care about us.

It’s difficult to achieve that kind of connection when we stick to dry subjects like what we do for work. I know it’s the default subject to talk about when at a networking event; however, thinking outside the box will reap rewards in quality conversation and, ideally, even identify synergies from which to leverage.

Prepare smart questions in advance to strike up an interesting conversation to take you beyond the superficial and stick out. Examples might be:

  • I’m always looking for new books/podcasts, what are your recommendations?
  • What pain point in your compliance program are you prioritizing fixing at the moment?
  • What’s the most innovative aspect of your compliance program?
  • What’s the biggest goal you wish to achieve this year? (Take that a step further and look for ways you might be able to assist the person with their goal.)
  • I’m currently a senior compliance manager and hoping to move to a compliance director role next. As a chief compliance officer, what would you be looking for in terms of promotion or hiring at the director level that I should think about addressing in my skill set and goals?

Challenge yourself to at least open every conversation with a topic that is not explaining your job title, responsibilities and company you work for.

Actually just don’t ‘network’ at all

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant is an expert on workplaces, leadership and career success. Here is his view on networking that was shared on X (formerly Twitter):

”Networks are key, but networking isn’t the best way to build one. Create something of value & share it with others.” 

Now why does this feel familiar? Oh yeah, it sounds a heck of a lot like sending the elevator back down! For the uninitiated, sending the elevator back down is the concept of acknowledging that once you’ve reached a certain level of success in your career, the right thing to do is to pay it forward and assist those following behind you, just like the trailblazers you’ve followed did for you.

What Adam is getting at here lends itself nicely to principles in playing the long game. I have found that engaging in extracurricular professional projects has been a fantastic way to meet others and build positive relationships. It was never the main purpose of the project but a significant ancillary benefit.

So, try forgetting about networking for the sake of networking. It shouldn’t be a chore. Instead, think about a passion project you think would serve the compliance community and with whom you’d like to collaborate. You don’t have to know the person already! I received a LinkedIn message recently from someone who asked if I’d like to put in a proposal with him to speak at a conference. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have gotten to know him better while we work on the proposal.


Forget about the traditionally dirty or icky concept of networking. Focus on collaboration, passion projects and partnerships outside of your core job, in addition to building and maintaining robust, reciprocal relationships. This includes reaching out to ties who have become dormant over time.

For more ideas on leveling up as a compliance professional and collaboration project opportunities you can take advantage of in the compliance space specifically, check out the special section on professional advancement in “Living Your Best Compliance Life: 65 Hacks and Cheat Codes to Level Up Your Compliance Program” available for Kindle pre-sale now here and set to be released in paperback and eBook on Aug. 15!

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