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Many of us really dislike the idea of networking. I hear all the time, “It’s a waste of time” or “I never get anything out of networking” or “I’m no good at networking.”
I’ll let you in on a little secret...I used to say these things, too. Networking was just not my cup of tea. I’m an introvert by nature and the mere thought of going to a networking function used to fill me with dread. Being in a crowd sucked my energy. I never knew who to talk to. I didn’t know what to say when I would talk to someone. It all just seemed so...tedious.
So, trust me when I say, “I get it.” The way we all view networking can feel a little forced and contrived. It’s hard to get past the small talk to get to a conversation that’s more meaningful. I understand that it usually doesn’t lead to quick results. I can empathize and commiserate right along with you when you talk about how you don’t like job fairs, happy hours, or mingling at networking events. I was (and to a lesser degree still am) right there with you.
But I’m here to tell you, if you do it right, networking really works.
The Power of Referrals
Think about why you buy various brands and products. Sure, you’re influenced by advertising to some degree, but hearing about it through word-of-mouth is even more powerful. If your good friend, whom you trust, says it’s a great product, you’re more apt to buy it than if you just see a commercial on TV.
Likewise, think about the last time you had to hire a contractor or find a mechanic. Did you whip out the Yellow Pages, close your eyes, and call the first person your finger landed on? No! I bet you asked people you know and trust who they have used. If your buddy says they do good work, you believe it more than if you read it on a business’ website.
The same can be said in the world of employment. In all my years of recruiting, I would regularly have Hiring Managers knocking on my door or calling me about someone they worked with in the past who contacted them interested in the job, or they got a referral from someone they highly regard. They wanted me to reach out to this person right away. You know what I did? I called that person as soon as I finished talking to the Manager. In short order, this person often got an offer.
Do Recruiters fill all their jobs this way? No. But about one in three hires are referrals. Which means, if you’re not networking, you’re missing out on a big piece of the hiring pie.
If I Hate Networking, What Should I Do?
Part of the problem for people like you and I, is that we look at networking from the wrong perspective. We think all our actions should yield results. When they don’t yield such results right away, we think we’re wasting our time. If you view it this way, you’re not going to get much out of it, other than a lot of frustration.
So, I suggest changing the angle a bit. Don’t go into a networking event thinking you have to meet a lot of people, and out of that, you’re going to get an interview shortly thereafter. Networking results take time. Instead, go in with the goal of meeting at least one interesting person.
Hmmm...that doesn’t sound so bad. Remember, I said “at least.” You can talk to as many people as you want to, but one is your minimum.
What do you talk about, you ask? You can talk about practically anything. I just wouldn’t jump straight into business by going into a long description of your job search. Stick to the common topics like: sports, weather, travel plans, where they live, if they have kids, hobbies, what they do, and so on. You’re in search of commonalities - this is what bonds two people together. Ask enough questions, and you’ll find common areas of interest that you can build upon. Eventually, the topic of occupations will come up and at that point you can talk about what each of you do for a living.
Your second objective is to get each person’s contact information after you’ve made some good small-talk. When it feels like it’s a good stopping point in the conversation, say how nice it was to meet them and ask if you can have their business card because you want to stay in touch.
Repeat this as many times as both time and energy will allow.
If nothing else, this is good practice. Networking is a skill that you need to develop, just like everything else you do in life. At some point, you’ll find that you’ve become a lot better at it than you ever thought you could be. You don’t have to love it, but at least you won’t be so opposed to it any more. Just know it’s one of those things you have to do.
I Have a Bunch of Business Cards, Now What?
This is where the rubber really meets the road. Take your cards home with you and go through them.
Separate them out into a couple piles. One pile should have all the contacts you’ve made that have high value. That is, they either seem to be well connected, they are in the industry or job field you’re interested in pursuing or learning about, or they were just really fun to talk to. This is your good networking lead pile. The other is for anyone whom you felt wasn’t a quality connection for one reason or another.
The next step is to follow up with the people you felt were your most promising leads. Write an email or call them over the phone in the next few days and try to set up a time with them to talk further over coffee.
For the introvert like me, this is where you’re going to be more in your comfort zone. You’re out of the bustle of a networking event and are now sitting down with one person to have a more meaningful conversation.
Again, you don’t want to lead off by talking business, but you’ll get there a lot faster this time. Your goal in this conversation is to learn and find ways to help one another. So, have some questions prepared in your mind about what you want to ask them ahead of time. When they talk about something interesting, probe a little more. Look for opportunities where you might be able to help them. Finally, when it’s your turn to talk about what you do and what you’re looking for, have something prepared to tell them. Explain what you are trying to accomplish. Ask for guidance. Listen.
My last piece of advice on this is to respect their time. After all, you are taking away from the rest of their day. If they only have 15 - 20 minutes, understand that’s all the time you have and keep things succinct. You don’t want them having to rush out to make their next appointment.
At the conclusion, thank them for their time and ask them if there is anyone else they can think of who might help you learn more. Reciprocate this gesture in some way by either introducing them to someone or offer your own knowledge to help them with their challenges. This is how you expand your network and get more people to know you.
If you do this enough times, within a month, you'll find that you've built up quite the network. Just make sure to keep in touch with all the connections you’ve made from time to time. As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” You never know when they are going to have an opening you might be perfect for or bump into an old friend who has that great opportunity you’ve been waiting for.
Will that happen tomorrow? Probably not. But it happens way more often than you’d expect.
What About LinkedIn? Isn’t That the Networking of the Future?
For some people, the answer is yes. For most LinkedIn users, the answer is a resounding no.
You should use LinkedIn as a means to an end, not the end itself. Having a LinkedIn account and making online connections simply isn’t enough to get referred to jobs. So don’t just simply collect network connections on LinkedIn like a kid collects baseball cards. Do something with the connections you make!
Just like you did at networking events where you got people’s business cards, you need to go through these online connections and try to actually meet them in person. Reach out to them and ask them for a few minutes of their time over a cup of coffee. It’s the same exact strategy as before, but with a different group of people you have met on a computer platform instead of in a banquet hall.
I know, this all sounds very old school. You’re right, it is. But just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s not effective. It takes time. It takes patience. However, it also gets results. So, go out there, meet new people, learn new things, and have some fun doing it. It’s really not nearly as bad as it sounds.