How to network like you mean it

There’s an old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This sentiment is extremely applicable to job hunting. While many people are applying “cold” – meaning they find jobs and apply for them without having a referral – a vast majority of jobs today are filled as a result of networking. Some sources say as much as 80 percent of job offers are a result of networking.

At most of my previous jobs, I’ve done everything I can to meet with as many people as possible from different sections of the company. Part of this is just to learn more about the company and how it works, but selfishly, it’s also so I can figure out if there are other parts of the company I’d eventually want to work in.

“But Lindsey, why would someone want to spend their time talking to me about their job?”

Easy: Most people love talking about themselves. OK, not everyone likes talking about themselves, but they’re generally comfortable providing you with at least an overview of their department.

Building trust

Here’s how I get started. First, I want to build trust with the person. This means that I don’t demand they tell me everything about their department right away. Start off with something light, like asking them career-related questions: how did you get to be in this role, what’s your previous work experience, what made you want to come here, etc. Be prepared to share the same information about yourself. Also be prepared to explain why you asked them to coffee in the first place. Don’t be too honest – I don’t usually say that I’m trying to figure out what my next job is. I’ll instead say that I’m trying to get a better understanding of how the organization works and what all the pieces of the puzzle are.

Hopefully this conversation will segue into what their work-life in that role and department are like.

You’ll probably want to ask a few questions about their non-work life too, but I’d wait to see how much the person responds to the career-related questions first. If things are going really well and the person is open, consider asking some non-intrusive questions about their personal life. Sometimes it’s easiest to get into this toward the end of the conversation by asking something like, “What did you do last weekend?” or “Got big plans for the weekend?” This will provide some insight into their outside-of-work life: are they doing something with their significant other and/or kids, are they going to church, are they running a marathon, are they volunteering at a charity, are they taking their dog to the groomers, etc. Being able to talk about your personal-life similarities provides a stronger base for which to build trust.

Oh, and you should buy their coffee or whatever it is that they order.

What you’ll learn

After you’ve built a foundation of trust, you’ll find people are much more giving with their information. They’ll begin to share everything you’d ever want to know: what does that team do, what are some of the roles on that team, how long has everyone been there, who are the good bosses, who are the crappy bosses, are there lots of layoffs, etc. If the work sounds interesting, now you have a list of all the people on the team and what each of them does, along with which leaders to try to work for or to avoid. I like making new friends, so I’d probably setup coffee dates with all the people mentioned in this conversation who I thought could be valuable to me.

Lifelong connections

You might decide after a few conversations that you’re not at all interested in working in that person’s area, but you might find some common connections that suggest you’ve made a new friend, which means many more coffees and lunches, and, more importantly, a new friend!

The majority of my friends today are people I met at work through persistent networking and relationship building. They come from many different walks of life and career paths. I gain so much fulfillment from having them in my lives, not just because they are great to bounce career ideas off of, but also because they are just awesome people who are kind, hilarious and wise beyond belief.

Even though I love these people, it doesn’t mean we’re getting together every weekend. I try to meet up with everyone a few times a year. We’ll schedule brunches, lunches, dinners – sometimes even walking dates.

Unless the people you’re meeting with are your new BFFs, I’d guess that monthly is the most frequent you should assume you’ll get together. It’ll probably more like quarterly, but do whatever feels right.

Other networking ideas

If you have maxed out your connections at work, you might be looking for other ways to meet new people. There are lots of options.

  • Volunteering, either for a charitable organization, an employee interest group at your company or a professional organization related to your line of work or interests.
  • Attending conferences aligned with your industry, line of work or interests.
  • Asking people from your existing network to connect you with people you’d like to meet, whether it’s someone who does something you’re interested in or works for a company you’d like to learn more about.
  • Create your own event. This idea came from Dorie Clark, in an article she wrote about networking for introverts. Clark likes to bring together interest groups of colleagues whom she thinks might enjoy each other. (If you’re an introvert, here’s another article with nine networking tips specifically for introverts.)

How to avoid “cold” applying, even when you don’t have a connection

Let’s say you’ve found a job you’re interested in. If you’re lucky, someone from your robust network works there and can either refer you for the position and/or connect you with the recruiter. If they’re a really good friend, they might be able to get you an informational interview with the hiring manager.

But sometimes the jobs we’re interested in are with companies we have absolutely no connection to. Typically this means we have to apply “cold” – we submit our application and resume into the online application abyss and hope for the best. If you don’t have any connections for a role you’re interested in, try checking LinkedIn. Do a search for the company or job you’re interested in. If the company has that position posted, they’ll sometimes include the recruiter who’s responsible for sorting through candidates. Send the recruiter a private message. I’ve done this in the past and was able to set up an informational interview with the recruiter. Through that conversation, we determined I wasn’t a good fit for that particular role, but the recruiter came up with a list of other roles I’d be a perfect fit for and set me up with interviews for those.

By doing the company search on LinkedIn, you might realize you do have connections – or connections to a connection – that you weren’t aware of.

In conclusion

Networking can feel really intimidating for most people. It can also sound like a lot of work. But if you remind yourself that you can do it slowly, one person at a time, hopefully you’ll realize it’s not so daunting. For those of you who are extra-extroverted, mass networking at conferences and events is probably a cake walk. For those of us who are introverted, ease into things by finding one individual you’d like to connect with. Have I had bad networking experiences? Only in situations where the person with whom I met was nearly opposite of me in personality. I definitely didn’t make a long-lasting relationship with those people, but I still usually got a list of names of other people with whom I could connect. Plus it makes for a good story if it went horribly. Win/win, right?

Consider setting a goal for yourself: one networking experience a month, or whatever timeframe sounds doable to you.

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