Like other career development professionals, I am constantly reminded of the critical role that networking plays in the job search process and in one's ongoing professional development. I recently met with a client who debated whether to attend a career panel, especially since he had a family birthday dinner scheduled around the same time. Given my belief that any opportunity to engage with like-minded professionals is beneficial, I encouraged him to stop by the event on his way to the family celebration. He later informed me that he did go to the panel and that one of the speakers turned out to be a senior executive - someone who could potentially become his boss - at the firm where he was scheduled to interview the following week. By introducing himself after the panel, he was able to start the relationship off on the right foot, thus laying valuable groundwork in advance of his interview.
Situations like this one cause me to wonder why anyone would pass up on a potential networking opportunity. We all know how important it is to build effective business relationships. So, why do many of us balk when it comes to reaching out to others during a job search? People I work with generally express two complaints about networking: 1) it is too time consuming, and 2) it makes them anxious to initiate and manage the process. Although I cannot alter the reality of this first issue, I can offer suggestions that may help to mitigate the second.
Stay organized. In the 11/9/05 Columbia Business School alumni newsletter, career consultant Ellis Chase offers valuable advice on the mechanics of networking. His "ABCs" include suggestions for organizing your contact list and an outline of important steps in the process. Refer to these tips in order to keep things manageable as you plan your outreach strategy. For many of us, our anxiety and organization levels are inversely proportional.
Act natural. Beware of networking approaches that don't fit your personal style. Most career coaches I know advocate perfecting a 2-minute marketing pitch and a 30-second "elevator" version of your accomplishments and value proposition to unleash on potential contacts at cocktail parties and other business functions. However, if you are not comfortable schmoozing in this way, I don't recommend forcing it. There's nothing worse than coming across as rehearsed (or overly aggressive) in these contexts. Unless you are fully confident in your approach, you will be better served by initially relating to people based on shared interests. Find out what brought them to the event and get to know their perspective on things first. Once you develop rapport, it will be easier to seek advice on your career goals or talk more specifically about how they can be of help.
Every relationship counts. You should consider most people that you meet to be potential networking contacts. The obvious examples are your work colleagues, clients, friends, and the 35,000+ members of the Columbia Business School alumni network. But what about the parents of your child's school classmates? Or the neighbors who live in your building? Does this mean you should spend hours testing your elevator pitch on the clerk at your local video store? Of course not, but make sure not to overlook the fact that people you encounter every day could be a source of opportunity, depending on your career goals. Also remember that no person is too junior to be included in your network. A managing director I used to know asked his administrative assistant for feedback on every person that came through his office. Those who ignored or treated his assistant poorly did not win any favors from the MD. The lesson here is: be inclusive and try to value everyone you meet.
Be a hub. The most successful professionals always seem to be at the center of an enormous network. They talk to everyone and usually hear about job openings before the rest of the public. The common denominator with these folks is that they work just as hard to provide information to their contacts as they do in seeking opportunities for themselves. They do this because they realize that the person they help today may be a source of opportunity in the future. Make an effort to assist those in your network whenever possible and it will pay dividends. If possible, connect people from different parts of your network. When you put your college friend in touch with a colleague whose team has an appropriate opening, you set yourself up as the node in an important set of relationships. Should your friend get hired, everyone benefits and these contacts will certainly keep you firmly in mind when a future opportunity arises.
There is no formula. People frequently ask me how many contacts they need to make in order to be successful in the networking process. Whereas it is certainly true that the more you reach out, the richer your network, there is no formula to determine the number conversations it will take to access that dream opportunity. Luck and timing play a role here. So, spend your time worrying about the quality, not the quantity, of interactions you are having. If you are concerned about momentum, be sure to request additional contact names following each discussion you have. Most importantly, focus on really engaging those you speak with. A smaller number of deeper relationships will benefit you more than a larger number of shallow ones.
Have fun. Despite that it requires significant investment of time and energy, the networking process can also be enjoyable. You will learn a great deal about how others work and think about your target area(s). What could be bad about interacting with a lot of interesting, bright people who may play an important part in your ongoing professional development? You may find a mentor. Hopefully, you will meet some new friends and colleagues. At the very least, you will be actively employing the single most important tool in your career development kit.