Networking. Depending on who you talk to the word conjures up a variety of emotions, everything from excitement through to fear, loathing and trepidation.
Numerous writers and business professionals have extolled the merits and advantages of networking. Writer Keith Ferrazzi in his book “Never Eat Alone” shares his personal and professional journey and describes how networking was instrumental in his career success. Career counselors and Human Resources practitioners have long spoken of the “hidden job market”, and how networking is responsible for filling an estimated 60% of positions in organizations.
So, if networking is so critical to career success why are people so reluctant to engage in it, and what can they do to overcome this fear?
A Little Perspective
To begin with it helps to clarify what networking is and isn’t. Simply stated, networking is a process of social interaction in which there is an exchange of ideas, information or contacts among people with a common history, interest or vocation. That social interaction can occur through a variety of mediums whether in person, by phone, social media or virtual channels.
This definition almost begs the next question; namely, what type of ideas, information or contacts are exchanged? The answer is far-ranging, and could involve client information, business or employment opportunities, gossip, contact information, or any other myriad of data.
Where most job seekers have problems with networking is that they assume they lack the requisite skills, training or disposition to conduct networking effectively. They think that only extroverts or those with an outgoing personality have the capability of networking with any degree or proficiency.
Whether you know it or not you are probably involved in networking right now. If you attend conferences, participate in training seminars, have coffee with business colleagues, or connect by phone with professionals in your industry or sector, you are networking. Networking for job search simply involves leveraging these activities and using them, and other techniques, to seek out opportunities in the hidden job market.
The Hidden Job Market: Myth or Reality?
Let me assure you that as someone who is essentially an introvert (my MBTI profile is “INTJ”) I profess no great skill or aptitude for sales or networking. That being said, three times in my career I was successful in uncovering employment openings through networking. In each case, the position I uncovered was a project or undertaking that was being contemplated but hadn’t yet been formalized. No job description had been developed. The salary hadn’t been determined. In most cases, it didn’t exist on an organization chart.
Through networking, I was able to tweak the interest of a hiring manager. By being available, or simply, “the right person at the right time”, I presented my prospective employer with a chance to initiate an action or move forward on an initiative that, until then, had not been fully formed.
Start by Defining Your Target Market
Before embarking on a networking campaign one of the essential things you need to determine is your target market. There are three levels of differentiation:
- By discipline or specialization (e.g. accounting, marketing, human resources, etc.).
- By sector (e.g. healthcare, pharmaceuticals, transportation, etc.).
- By geography (e.g. city, region, province or state).
Identifying Your Contacts
Whether you know it or not you likely have a myriad of personal and professional contacts. Start by first identifying people who are your potential contacts.
Your contacts can come from a number of sources. Here are a few possibilities:
- LinkedIn (e.g. contacts and groups of which you may be a member).
- Social Media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).
- Local associations (e.g. church, school, political organizations, charities, etc.).
- Professional or trade organizations.
Compile a list of everyone in these groups you can name. Then, go through the list and sort your contacts into “Active” and “Inactive”. There is no magic number of how many people you need to start your network, but I would aim for at least fifty. Your first priority will be to contact everyone you know whether by e-mail or phone. In the case of family, friends and local associations, chances are you see or are in contact with many of these people regularly. You will want to apprise them of your status, and ask that they keep you in mind should they hear or learn of any employment opportunities within your field.
Your contacts in the other areas require a bit of forethought and planning. Think first about your approach, and remember: subtlety is the key. Have some well-planned and thoughtful questions prepared. Start by setting up a call or meeting. Be conscious of your contact’s time and work commitments. Tell them you are contemplating a career move, and are doing research to determine if this is the industry or field that fits your aspirations and needs.
Sample Networking Questions
Knowing how to start a networking meeting is always tricky. My advice is to move from the general to the more specific as the discussion moves along. Remember that in all probability, the person you are meeting with may be just as uncomfortable and ill at ease as you are.
Begin with an exchange of pleasantries, and then explain that your purpose in meeting with this person is to gain more familiarity with their industry. Whatever you say do not ask them if their company is hiring, and do not ask them if they have any jobs available. Doing this will immediately put them on the defensive and render your networking meeting ineffective.
Here are some networking questions you can use to get started:
- How long have you worked in this company?
- What attracted you to this company (or industry)?
- What do you feel is the most significant challenge facing your organization today?
- How would you define the corporate culture of your company or organization?
- What differentiates your company from other competitors in this sector?
- What advice would you give to someone such as myself looking to enter this field?
- What type of training, qualifications or attributes does your firm look for in prospective applicants?
- Is there anyone you could think of in this industry that might be helpful to me in gaining additional insights?
Of course, as your meeting progresses, you may go off on tangents. That is fine. Bear in mind that this is a conversation, and your focus is upon developing useful contacts and gathering information.
Keep your discussion to about half an hour. At the conclusion, be sure to thank your networking contact, and afterwards, make a point of sending them a thank you e-mail. Most importantly, keep in touch. One of the biggest mistakes people make in networking is failing to sustain the relationship. Periodically, reach out with an e-mail or call to reinforce the relationship. Remember: think long-term. The better able you are to develop and maintain professional associations the more likely your contacts are to remember you in future.
If you made an impact chances are your networking contact will keep you in mind for any employment opportunities that may arise in future. If so, be sure to express your appreciation and follow up in a timely manner. A significant number of organizations hire employees today through referrals, and this is where the connection between networking and employment emerges.
Using LinkedIn allows you to connect with people through online groups that you can join which provides distinct advantages in two ways. First, you can connect with people directly in companies or organizations in which you have an interest. Second, you can comment on articles or posts in your field of interest. Both of these strategies help to build your brand and recognition.
A Final Thought
Networking can be formidable largely because most people aren’t taught how to do it properly. Sometimes they start it, then stop. The other challenge is people who engage in it expect immediate results. Truthfully, networking is a process of building a solid foundation for the future. It is a critical business skill like communication, organization and decision-making, and in today’s business world it is more critical than ever before. Those with a strong network learn of opportunities, gain insights, and gather information that provides a clear and distinct advantage over others.
If you don’t believe me, just read Keith Ferrazzi’s book.