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Networking 101

When my clients come to me for career counseling, I find that one of the areas in which they have the most difficulty moving forward is in networking.  For so many people “networking” brings up scary visions of cold-calling, using people, or any one of several other unpleasant and even unethical issues.  Yet the importance of networking in career development can hardly be understated.  According to “What Color Is My Parachute,” one of the definitive job-hunting guides, networking is the way that about 60% of jobs are landed.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites an even higher number: 70%.   So if you are not networking, and networking aggressively, you are missing out on THE principal source of a new job or career.

It probably helps to start with a definition (or at least my definition) of what networking is – and isn’t.  In my view, networking has two tiers.  First and foremost it is a process of reaching out to a group of people who already know you and have a positive impression of you.  Those people are already predisposed to be “on your side,” and to be willing to spend a little time and effort on your behalf.  The second and third tiers of networking are the one that generally makes people uncomfortable: striking up conversations and perhaps even relationships with strangers in the hope that they will connect you with a job opening or the entryway to a new career.

Unless you are brand new to the working world or are exceptionally introverted, chances are that you have a sizeable first tier of people.  They range from school friends to college roommates to cousins to people who attend the same church / synagogue / mosque / temple to neighbors to former co-workers to members of the local group where you volunteer.  The essential criterion on which to judge the networking potential of such connections is “if someone called them and asked them about me, would they have something generally positive to say about me?”  If so, they are prime networking prospects.

The mistake many of the clients who come to me for career counseling or life coaching make is that they assume that because a connection of theirs works in a field totally unrelated to the one they’re interested in, it makes no sense to reach out to them.  How could cousin Freddy, who works as an administrator in the Department of Agriculture, possibly help them find a job in, say, corporate finance, hospitality, consumer marketing, or the entertainment business?  So cousin Freddy is left off the list of networking prospects.  However, cousin Freddy may work with someone whose uncle is a vice-president of Morgan Stanley, or whose babysitter's Dad works for Marriott. Your next-door neighbor may have 10 years ago worked for someone who’s now a sales executive at Procter and Gamble.  Your hairdresser may be married to a guy whose brother is a talent agent.  There’s simply no way of knowing whom your connections are connected to

Another mistake that my clients make is to tell people in their network that they’re interested in a particular field and ask whether they’ve heard of any opportunities.  If not, they then request, “please keep your ears open”.  Over and out.  What should also be added to the networking speech is “Do you know of someone in the field whom I’d be able to talk to?”  That request will get your connection thinking in an entirely different and more expansive and creative way.

Be sure to systematize your network, by which I mean create a list (or, preferably, a spreadsheet) of people who have a favorable impression of you, list whatever contact information you may have, note the current status of your relationship and any significant details (“Fraternity brother – ran into him 4 years ago at a convention in Philadelphia, seems happily married with two kids, works for some kind of wholesaler”), and then create a “next step”, e.g. “Send e-mail to him next week suggesting we get together for coffee,” “Invite him to dinner,” “Invite him to connect on LinkedIn”.  Update the information as it changes, and be specific with dates when it comes to next steps.

Finally, remember that your networking outreach is likely to be much less of an imposition on your connection than you think.  Most people are happy to help out someone they think well of, realize that in this tough economy lots of people are needing help, will be appreciated by a prospective employer if they’re instrumental in placing a good candidate in an open position, and may one day may need to ask for a favor in return.  Networking, far from being an imposition on a connection, stands a good possibility of creating a “win/win” for all involved.

Next week I’ll be discussing networking outside of your first tier.

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