When I talk to people of all ages about “networking,” they have valid reasons for bristling. They are shy. They fear rejection. But with networking being a key player in you scoring that dream job, you need to know how to reach out the right way.
Because we are all in the business of communicating, and thanks to the ease of the Internet, a faux pas can be sent into instant orbit. But the same button can send your tactful and legitimate query to scores of people who might really help you. Let’s take a look at a few tactics for networking, the right way.
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Stop looking for a job and start looking for a person
This is my mantra: Stop looking for a job and start looking for a person. The right person will lead you to the right job. This applies whether you’re looking for a job or just personal and professional connections in general.
But you have to help people help you, and this is where many people bog down. I am a big fan of what I call the “inside informational interview,” a chance to talk with people within the company or organization you want to work for.
Since more than 80 percent of all jobs reside in what’s known as the “hidden job market,” you need to get inside a place and find out what’s really going on in terms of openings, their needs, future plans and so on.
Stop sending your résumé hurtling blindly into the black hole of cyberspace. Start talking to people.
Line up inside informational interviews
So how do you set up inside informational interviews, and where do you look to set them up? There are three resources I think are often overlooked, basically because they’re so obvious that they become invisible.
1. People where you work or freelance now. Once you’ve done anything for anyone in a company, even as a freelancer, intern or volunteer, you are an “insider” and you need to think of yourself that way—without being presumptuous. Make the most of that status in seeking new opportunities.
Describe what you’re looking for as specifically as possible (“I want to pitch a culinary travel feature about Japan since I’m going there this summer” or “I’m exploring the managing editorial side of publishing”) and ask your existing company contact for an introduction and whether or not you may use his/her name.
Ask for the name, email address and phone number of people you should talk to or ask whether your contact would be willing to forward a query from you, whether it’s a pitch or a request for an informational interview. Keep in touch with people at places you used to work and let them know what you’re looking for.
2. Your references. References are one of the most underutilized sources of leads around. You should always be in touch with your references and should be keeping them up to date on your search. Presumably, they already know and love you.
Don’t just ask them for a letter of recommendation or permission to have someone contact them for a verbal recommendation; ask for leads and contacts! Professors, particularly those who have published books, are great contacts, as well. They have publishers, editors and increasingly, agents—or know colleagues who do.
3. Your college/graduate school and high school alumni associations, career services and periodicals. These offices and associations range from the highly structured to informal or nonexistent; private institutions in particular place great emphasis on maintaining these kind of networks.
You can call up the alumni association, career or magazine office, explain that you’re interested in talking with alumni in your industry or area and see what they come up with.
Some schools have online databases or alumni magazines, some with “class notes” sections. Read these to find names of like-minded alumni and find out if they’re willing to be contacted and what their preferred mode of communication is.
Your class may have regional officers or representatives; reach out to them. The people who volunteer to serve in these roles are generally connectors. Attend local gatherings or reunion events.
The rules are the same whether you’re reaching out in person or virtually: Be respectful of people’s time, respect their right to say “no” to a request and don’t take it personally (they don’t know you!) if they do. Be clear about what you’re asking for, and avoid these surefire ways to turn people off.
Don’t be the person people want to flee from
After a party I hosted once, several friends told me that they had been accosted by an acquaintance trying to start a new business.
She had invited herself, cornered my guests and given them a hard sell in an invasive way. She had no sense of boundaries. Yes, social gatherings are obviously a way to meet new people, but they are not business meetings or professional networking events!
Yes, you want to meet as many people as possible, thus increasing your odds of landing in the right place. But know when to back off. Be prepared when you attend a social function but understand the limits of the situation.
Have business cards (yes, even before you’re in business—especially before you’re in business—you must have a card with your name and contact information) and have your elevator pitch ready, but don’t launch into a monologue at a social gathering.
Ask the person you’re talking with for guidance: “I’d love to tell you more. May I be in touch? What’s best for you?” Offer your card and ask if the person would like you to be in touch (in which case you need his/her contact information) or if he/she prefers to contact you at their convenience.
If you don’t hear from them within a week, send a brief reminder email (“Great to meet you at John’s birthday party last week; let me know if you have time to talk in the next week or so.”)
If you hear nothing, let it go. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives or minds.
Avoid artificial dissemination
A few weeks ago, at a cocktail party explicitly billed as a networking event for people in media, arts and entertainment, a guy came up to me, said “I’m Charlie” and stuck out his business card. That was it.
I had been talking with a friend; we stopped and I asked what business he was in. It turned out that in fact, we all had interests in the education arena, but after a few moments of conversation, he ran off.
He never once said what he was interested in or what he was looking for, did not describe his business or ask us any questions.
I guess he had been told to put his card in the hands of as many people as possible, but his Captain Literal interpretation was ludicrous. This is what I call artificial dissemination, and I don’t recommend it. His approach was tactless and useless.
In sum, don’t approach other people in a way you wouldn’t want to be approached. It gets really clear and simple when you think about it this way. Help people help you. When you’re reaching out, put your stock in The Golden Rule; it’s one asset that never loses its value.
The do’s and don’ts of helping people help you:
Don’t take people’s time for granted. Be up front and specific: “I’d like to talk with you about…” Be prepared for all encounters.
Don’t tell people “I’ll do anything” or “I’m interested in everything.” They can’t help you without specific guidelines about what you want. You are not being flexible; you are being naïve. I’m willing to talk to you and open my Rolodex but I need parameters: specific jobs, industries, geographical areas. Help me help you!
Do thank people who help you. In some cases, a meal or drink or gift is appropriate. Thank both the person you speak with and the person who makes the introduction.
Do keep your intermediaries in the loop; if you’re not going to follow up on a lead, let them know. If offered a contact you won’t use, decline politely.
Don’t pretend you’ll follow up if you know you won’t. “You know, I don’t think I should bother him at this point, but thanks for the lead—and I’ll keep that in mind.”