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Connections help kick-start a career

Networking groups are an ideal way to expand business opportunities

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Networking is as important to your career as location is to real estate.

But not everyone knows how to network effectively, especially if you're shy or you're just starting out in a career.

That's where structured networking groups could come in handy with organized meetings and events where you could meet people without feeling out of place.

Take your pick among the numerous professional and business organizations in Baltimore. Some are defined by geography or industry or mission. Many have breakfast get-togethers or brownbag lunches, while others have informal happy-hour events and career management workshops.

I asked two professionals to share their strategies for group networking.

Eric Brotman, a certified financial planner in Timonium, is a longtime member of the Baltimore Junior Association of Commerce. The group has about 100 members who are in the financial services, mortgage and real estate industries.

Limit your membership to one or two organizations. Otherwise, "you're spread too thin," Brotman says.

And set realistic expectations about what you're going to get out of the organization, especially in the beginning.

"You're not going to do business the first time you show up," he says. "It takes a while to build any relationship."

Instead of handing out countless business cards to everyone you shake hands with, Brotman suggests developing a relationship with one person at a time. It's hard enough for you as well as others to keep track of one person, let alone 20.

"None of the 20 people are going to spend enough time with you to remember you," he says.

For newbies, Lovey St. Pellicer-Stofko of Owings Mills advises contacting the membership coordinator of the group and introducing yourself. That way, the coordinator could start introducing you to other members so as to avoid that awkward I-don't-know-anyone-here feeling.

In 2002, St. Pellicer-Stofko started Koffee Talk, a networking and professional organization for sales and marketing professionals around Baltimore. She was switching careers from marketing to corporate sales and wanted to develop a customer base. So, she and two friends met for coffee every week to exchange leads.

Today, the group holds breakfast meetings, business roundtables and happy-hour events. (True to its name, Koffee Talk even has its own coffee blend.)

At organized events, members have a chance to introduce themselves to others with two-minute promos.

Make it short and sweet, and include an interesting fact about yourself.

"So many people come and go, you want to be remembered," St. Pellicer-Stofko says.

If you can't find what you want in a group, start your own like St. Pellicer-Stofko did.

"All you need is a group of people who could bring someone you don't know to the table," Brotman says. "You don't need 1,000 members to make it a worthwhile thing."

On another note: Did you know today is National Boss's Day? (OK, stop snickering.) It's hard being a manager these days, so we should celebrate and appreciate the good ones.

If you're not happy with your boss, well, you can't fire him or her. But you could create the ideal manager -- at least a virtual one.

Development Dimensions International, a talent management firm, has created a Web site where workers can create the perfect boss, or the one who makes you want to scream, in cartoon form. Workers may choose positive or negative characteristics to create a boss from scratch at www.ddiworld.com/buildaboss.

What are your networking strategies? And what is on your mind about life at work? Send your stories, tips and questions to working@baltsun.com. Please include your first name and your city.

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