Networking. Just the thought of it may make you feel uncomfortable.
Who do you reach out to? What do you say? How do you stay in contact?
But even if it feels awkward, networking can play a major role in advancing your career.
“People are nervous about networking,” said Marcia Ballinger, author of “The 20-Minute Networking Meeting” and co-founder of executive search firm Ballinger|Leafblad. She added that the majority of jobs people land tend to come through their network.
But you should be tactful with your approach.
“If you go into networking telling everyone you know you need a job and need help finding a job, people don’t gravitate to that — it makes people uncomfortable,” Ballinger said. “If you go in and say: ‘I want to reconnect with people, rebuild relationships, learn some things that will be valuable, share and contribute back,’ the jobs will come.”
If the thought of networking makes your stomach drop, here’s how to make it as pain-free as possible while seeking your next job.
Use the network you already have
“Even if you think you don’t know people, you do know some folks,” said Kimberly Cummings, author of “Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning into a Career You’ll Love.”
That means looking to family, friends, mentors, sponsors, current and former co-workers, people you volunteer with or are in professional organizations with, that might be able to assist in your job search. That can include having someone pass along your resume, connect you with a hiring manager, make introductions or explain how they successfully changed careers into the industry you also want to pursue.
“Focus on the people you actually liked and enjoyed and had some sort of camaraderie with. Your network is not the same as everybody you’ve ever met,” said Karen Wickre, author of “Taking the Work out of Networking.” “It is a set of people you have a good feeling about even if you don’t know them well or your experience together was a long time ago, that is a good basis for people that you can reach out to in a friendly way.”
When reaching out to people you know directly, provide a concise background of what’s going on and what you are looking for.
“It’s a paragraph or two where you say: ‘I am looking for this, I’ve done this. Now, I want to do that or I am interested in this, or I’d like my next job to be this,” said Wickre. “Help that person know how to help you. Give them something, not just: ‘I’d like a new job and I thought you might have ideas for me.'”
For instance, if you applied to a role and you know someone at the company, reach out. “If you have even the thinnest connection to somebody there, absolutely parlay that,” said Ballinger.
You can say something like: I am looking for my next job opportunity and I recently applied to a position at your company and was wondering if you have 15 to 20 minutes for a conversation so I can learn more about your experience.
“The best approach isn’t ‘can you get me in?’ It’s a little more ‘what can you share? I’d love to learn more. Anyone else you think I should connect with as part of my application process?'” said Ballinger.
All the people in your immediate network know people, too, which can then create an extended network if they are willing to connect you with their contacts. This can lead to getting the name of a hiring manager or recruiter to directly submit your resume to.
“One question to ask in every networking conversation is: ‘Is there anyone else in your network you feel would be beneficial for me to meet? And if so, would you be willing to facilitate an introduction?’ That can immediately start opening up some doors,” said Cummings.
Don’t be afraid of a cold reach-out
Sometimes, your network doesn’t have what you need and you have to start from scratch.
A little online research can help you find employees of a company you are interested in working for or professionals that have made similar career transitions that would be good to connect with.
Reaching out to someone you don’t know can be intimidating, but there are ways to make it seem a little more personal. Review LinkedIn and other social media pages to help find some commonality, whether it was attending the same college, doing similar volunteer work or growing up in the same area that can help break the ice in your initial contact.
A little flattery can also help, like mentioning a recent award or promotion they received or saying how much you enjoyed a recent post they made on LinkedIn or social media.
The key is to show you’ve done your research and to be clear with what you are requesting.
“Don’t say, ‘I want to pick your brain,’ that is the worst thing you can say to someone,” said Jacqueline Whitmore, business etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. “It sounds like you are a taker and you don’t want to be perceived as a taker, but more of a learner or someone who is curious and willing to go the extra mile to do what it takes to make a good first impression. Who has time to sit with someone who wants to pick their brain?”
Come prepared to the initial meeting
You should come prepared with a lot of questions for your networking meeting or phone call, but “can I have a job?” isn’t one of them.
Research as much as you can about the person you are meeting with and the company so you can ask pointed questions. If you are meeting with someone for the first time, the goal is to learn more about their background and expertise.
“Ask them something you can’t readily and easily find out about them on the internet,” said Ballinger. To learn more about the person, she suggested asking specific questions like: “You’ve moved from finance in a corporate setting into finance in higher education, I am also interested in higher education. Can you tell me about that transition?”
The goal is to establish a connection with that person.
“In that initial conversation, we shouldn’t be focusing on the ask of you wanting to get connected to a job. You want to make sure you are connecting to that person and building that relationship first,” said Cummings.
You can mention that you are job hunting, but Cummings said to remove any expectations.
Give the person you are reaching out to control over where, when and how (virtual, phone, coffee) the meeting will go. Experts agreed that 20 minutes is enough time for an initial meeting.
Stay in ‘loose touch’
Networking is an ongoing process.
“Just meeting someone doesn’t mean they are in your network,” said Cummings. “After you have the coffee chat, that is level 1, you are now in their attention…but not yet a friend.”
She suggests following up immediately by thanking them for their time, mentioning something specific from the meeting that you found particularly helpful or interesting and that you’d like to stay in touch.
And it doesn’t have to be overly complicated.
“Keep in loose touch,” said Wickre. “This is the key to having a good network: You are intermittently and very informally and casually in touch with people and it doesn’t have to be a two-way exchange.”
The good news is there are a lot of digital platforms that can help you do this. It can be sending an email about an interesting article that you think the person would like, commenting on a LinkedIn post, telling them how beautiful their vacation photos are on Instagram, or sending a direct message on Twitter.
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