Not so long ago I was looking to return to the workforce in a new geographic area and into a new arena. My particular area of expertise while transferrable was narrowly focused in a specific industry. It was time to network. Like most, I applied wildly but the smartest thing I did was calling people, emailing friends of friends and joining professional associations. I also took a class to refresh my supervisory skills and, to my surprise, the leadership team from the company that I now work for was also attending. The instructor, well trained in how to engage a classroom full of adults, facilitated discussions amongst the group and the “networking” began. A handwashing bathroom conversation (yes) during the day of the training, a LinkedIn connection and a couple of phone conversations later and I was invited in to speak further about joining the team. Networking worked.
There are many challenges associated with searching for a new opportunity and, depending on your personality, some may be harder to wrestle than others. Networking is often at the top of the list of “I’d rather not” for those folks who: feel uncomfortable in forced conversations, struggle socializing generally or feel challenged when focusing conversation on or around their own capabilities and interests.
That being said, networking still remains the most effective job search tool around. Over 80% of job seekers consider career networking as the most successful component of landing a job. While the idea of networking is unsettling for some, it really is simply talking or even writing (thank you digital networking i.e. Facebook. LinkedIn, email, etc.) to people you know directly, indirectly or want to know.
Career networking, or "professional" networking specifically, involves using personal, professional, academic or familial contacts to assist with a job search, achieving career goals, or learning more about your field, or a field you'd like to work in. Networking includes asking questions – usually for advice, not for a job specifically. It’s called a network because we are linked to many people, and those people are linked to a bunch of other people.
If you are new to networking and are unsure about your ability to “perform” in that type of environment perhaps you start with a group of people who have something in common with you. Maximize your alumni network functions – you all have attended the same school. Attend a networking event hosted by a professional association for which you are a member – similar professional goals and interests. Connect with friends of friends realizing that you have something in common with one another to help facilitate the connection and conversation.
Once you start to get comfortable interacting in an environment of folks who share close, common interests, branch out further. Attend a career fair or industry day that includes companies who represent the field you are trying to break into. Connect with someone who is further out of your immediate network that you may be linked to through a close point of contact. Keep reaching further to gather more information to become smarter about your search.
Be structured in your approach as you reach deeper into your network by identifying what you are hoping to achieve in the connection. Are you looking for information about the industry, the company or job opportunities in the field or specifically on that person’s team? Writer opinion: I find the later a bit bold. Approach folks deeper in your network informationally verses hoping they can help you land a current opportunity at their company. That type of outreach is something that can take place but not at an initial point of introduction. People are willing to help – we have all been there – but networkers should be mindful of creating some sort of connection before you cut to the “can you help me get a job” chase.
Just like ensuring that your resume is error free and represents all that you want the reader to know about you – you should spend a bit of time thinking about how to approach a networking event. Think about making the introduction. Come up with a standard “line” that might help ease into a meaningful discussion. Think “Do you come here often?” but on a professional level. “How long have you been a member of this Chapter?” “What year did you graduate?” “Is this the first function of this type that you have attended, it is mine?” Open the door for conversation.
Before you stress too terribly much remember many of the folks in the room have the same feeling of uncertainty that you do. Think about why you are attending the event and let that resonate in your mind. Make the introduction, communicate with purpose (try to take away or share something meaningful in the exchange) and plan an easy way to end the conversation to move on and maximize the opportunity to meet more folks. Breaking up is hard to do - this can be a challenge so think ahead what you will be comfortable saying: “Thank you for your time and for sharing information about your company.” “Do you have a card so we might connect again?” “Are you on LinkedIn?” “Would you be open to a follow-on conversation…. how might I connect with you?” End gracefully and graciously and move to your next new network connection.
Like anything – planning ahead will help to ease the uncertainty when you are in the pocket. Remember the more you do it, the more comfortable you will be and in no time – you will find yourself connecting with new people and incredible opportunities. Most importantly, when networking works and helps you land your dream job, make yourself available to return the favor.