Even as many of us are working from home at the moment, nurturing professional relationships is an important skill we need to practice and develop. I’ll confess that early in my career it took me a while to recognize the need for—and benefits of—networking. I had an interesting job that I liked with plenty of opportunities for challenging assignments and promotions. It went well until the owners sold the business and the new owners decided I was expendable.
In six months of blasting out résumés and cover letters “in the blind,” I received very few responses from prospective employers. As I continued my search for my next position, it became abundantly clear that I needed to have a larger support structure of professionals that I could reach out to for advice, introductions to their contacts, and maybe even job opportunities.
In a 2017 PayScale article (bit.ly/2wncP1J), Gina Belli notes:
“One of the major reasons that networking is such an effective way to get a job is that there is something of a hidden job market out there. Some estimate that as much as 80% of new jobs are never listed but are instead filled internally or via networking.
“In fact, getting a referral for a job opening from someone who’s already working with the company could give you pretty impressive odds. Only 7% of job applicants get this kind of referral, yet referrals make up 40% of new hires. Clearly, networking isn’t just one potential route to finding a new job—it’s actually the most effective path.”
What exactly is networking? Dale Carnegie, an American author and corporate-training lecturer, once said, “You can close more business in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.” Said another way, networking is building a professional relationship based on trust, as well as shared interests and experiences, that results in mutual benefit to both parties.
You’re probably thinking, “This is all well and good for sales and marketing folks, but I’m in finance.” Instead of “closing” a sale, think of your goal as forming new relationships first and finding and landing a new job second. As I got more proficient at networking, I was able to use my capabilities to find clients when I worked in a service business. Professionally, I’ve used my network to reach out to folks for potential solutions or different perspectives on issues. It was even valuable in building cross-functional alliances within the organization to solve complex problems. Networking effectively allows you to tap into your own and peers’ or employees’ networks to find talent to fill openings in your organization—or find an opening that’s a good fit for yourself in another organization. Now is a good moment to get creative with the many online avenues for networking.
A good way to start a networking relationship is by asking questions, sharing information, and seeking areas of common interest. Easy conversation starters include where you were from originally, where you live now, what brought you to this area, movies you’ve seen recently, travel destinations, and recreational activities. Share information about yourself and offer reactions or thoughts to what the other person shares, always looking for a common interest or connection. Ask open-ended questions and give responses that encourage dialog.
Aim to find a balance between seeking and sharing information. The worst networkers I’ve confronted never ask me anything, so I’m essentially playing the game Battleship, blindly hunting for targets.
After you’ve identified something you have in common as a basis for a professional relationship, work on the mutual benefit part. Don’t just ask for a job or referral. Start with something like, “Who do you know that works for company XYZ” or “has insights into an industry” or “has implemented robotic process automation in a small business?”
Listen for cues to pinpoint areas where you can reciprocate, such as “what are the biggest issues or challenges on your mind?” Then offer suggestions for how you would approach a similar issue or suggest contacts in your network who might be helpful.
You can follow up and keep the relationship growing by highlighting articles, opportunities, or events that the other person may be interested in. A follow-up email or message on LinkedIn can serve this purpose.
During the quarantine, you can also plan ahead for the return to traditional networking meetings, conferences, and other events hosted by a professional association in your field. How will you change your approach at these in-person events once they resume?
At networking events, arrive early, seek out new people to speak with, and stay as long as necessary to get to know them. The best networkers find a way to spend a few minutes having a meaningful, focused conversation to determine if there’s a basis for follow-up conversations, exchange business cards, and then move on.
Another networking opportunity is volunteering on a committee or project to demonstrate your skills and character. Also, don’t ignore your daily interactions with friends, family, and other people in your community. I know folks who have built valuable professional relationships on the sidelines of their kids’ soccer games.
Follow up with the people you meet and follow through on what you talk about. Reach out with a short note, email, or request to connect on LinkedIn. If you promised to do something, such as making an introduction or sending information, then do it promptly.
Look for ways to keep the relationship going—send links to interesting, relevant articles, share contacts, and meet occasionally for lunch or coffee. Don’t be the person who only makes contact when they need a job, a referral, or another favor.
Finally, be persistent. Like everything, networking gets easier with practice.
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