Networking can be one of the most uncomfortable aspects of professional development, requiring a set of skills that can push you out of your comfort zone. The fear or dislike of networking has nothing to do with someone’s level or experience; I work with senior executives who shy away from proactively networking even though it could help them advance their careers to the next level. In this hyperconnected age, avoiding networking can be a critical mistake. Done well, you not only gain access to jobs you want, but you can also develop meaningful relationships that go beyond climbing the corporate ladder.
It is never too late to start building your network. To begin, make a list of contacts with whom you haven’t been in touch for a while. Most people land new jobs through “weak ties,” meaning not through your neighbor but through your neighbor’s nephew or former colleague. Reaching out helps you find those ties. Personally, I love hearing from former colleagues and clients just to learn what they are doing. If you are reaching out to someone with whom you’ve had a good relationship, staying in touch in even small way keeps those connections alive. On the flip side, acknowledge those who reach out to you. Networking is a two-way street.
The informational interview can be invaluable in many ways. Make a list of 10-12 companies you are interested in and use LinkedIn to identify your first or second-level connections. Request a brief meeting in person or by phone to ask a few questions. Let them know that their employer is on your short list of compelling companies and that you are interested in investigating whether working there is a good fit. Leverage your closest connections to introduce you to people you want to meet who work in departments or are in related roles you’re targeting. When you meet, ask open-ended questions about the things you care about. Ask if you can stay in touch and make a point to do that if they say yes. If it goes well, it’s ok to ask them to keep you in mind if they see a job that might be a fit. You can also inquire if they have other contacts they recommend you speak with. Be sure to follow up with a thoughtful thank you email!
A misunderstanding that many people have is that to network effectively, you have to do all the talking. The most successful networkers get into conversations with others because they are genuinely interested in other people and curious about what they do. Listening is as important as talking.
When I was in Business Network International (BNI), I learned that networking in unstructured situations is easier when you go in prepared with questions. What do you love most about what you do?, usually gets people talking, as well as What’s your biggest challenge right now? Having questions at the ready can lower any anxiety to enable you to start meaty and interesting conversations that build rapport, help others get to know you, and lead to productive and fulfilling relationships.
With a majority of positions not posted in the public domain, becoming a networker is an essential component of any solid professional development plan. Consider trying these tips to start developing your networking skills. You may be surprised at the hidden benefits of having a strong network to draw upon for a well-rounded career experience.