Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.
Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:
Can you explain networking? I still don't really get it. I have many years (decades) of experience and so fortunately, I know a lot of people, and the people I know tend to know a lot of people too. I have gotten jobs in the past through people I know, but it was more a matter of someone I know knows I am looking for a job, and either recommends me to someone they know, or hires me. What I mean is that it has happened rather organically.
Now you might be saying, "Well, that's it! That's networking!" If that's the case, then I am doing it. But what confuses me is the idea of being introduced to someone in my field, the friend of an acquaintance or the acquaintance of a friend or something like that, and... then what?
I have a few people who are kindly offering to "put me in touch with so and so" who is in my field or a closely related field. So say either they virtually introduce us, or I send a note explaining the connection and that my contact suggested I contact them. Then what?
First of all, thank you for asking this question. There's a lot of bluster out there about networking, but most people either don't know what that means or are doing it wrong. So we appreciate the opportunity to clear up the confusion!
I believe networking is, at heart, about establishing a relationship. Because relationships are two ways, back and forth, that's why meeting someone and asking for a favor right off the bat doesn't work (i.e. a job, the infamous "pick your brain" request). This person doesn't know or trust you from Adam, so why should she want to help you?
You should always be taking time to meet new people - or networking - regardless of whether you are looking for a job or not. If you are looking for a job, don't emphasize that in your first conversation. Ask the person if he'll share some relevant information with you. Since you are tenured, there's no need to inquire about things you already know. Instead, you might ask what your industry is like in a particular geography, or how your role translates in a different type of field or organization.
The goal is to establish rapport with this person. After you've done that initially, follow up periodically so that you stay top of mind in the event that he becomes aware of a good opportunity for you. Think of ways that you can help him, which could be as simple as sending him an interesting news article. Once you've chatted a few times, you might casually mention what you're looking for career-wise.
I don't know about anyone else, but having coffee (which I don't drink) with someone I don't know during a very busy day when I'm lucky to find time to inhale my Lean Cuisine isn't my idea of time well spent. Sure, I want to help those who need it and I've done that before.
But here's the thing: I rarely get something in return during these "informational interviews" or "let's meet for a drink" sessions. Sure, I might feel warm and fuzzy for a bit knowing I helped another human being, but at the end of the day it didn't teach me anything, help me get ahead, provide me with a valuable contact or earn money.
My sense is that you know this, which is why you're so uncomfortable with some of the tactics being suggested. So, I would say you'll be much more comfortable with your networking if you sort of think of it as the golden rule. Would you want to meet with someone who didn't have a clue what you did and wanted you to spend an hour talking about it? Or, would you rather talk to someone who may not know you well, but can put you in contact with someone you might find valuable or introduce you to some potential
I think you will find networking works best when it's a mutually beneficial relationship. With a little bit of thought, I'll bet you'll find ways to reach out to many people and offer them something in return for their input.
As a incorrigible introvert, I understand where you’re coming from in not quite getting what you’re supposed to be doing when people tell you to “network.” It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to get together with strangers and pretend that you don't want something from them, when in fact you do. And especially when you’re not even sure what this thing is that you want from them.
So the first step is to get clear on what you want. But here’s the key: you have to decide that it’s not a job or a new client or even just info about a company or your field. Networking goes best when you decide that you’re really in just to get to know new people who might have similar or complementary interests to your own. When you decide to be genuinely interested in someone as a person – not for what they can do for you, but simply in who they are, and perhaps in how you might be able to be helpful to them – the nature of the experience changes. You’re suddenly not wondering how to ask if they’ll forward your resume to their boss or whether you can sell them on buying your product. Instead, you’re just getting to know someone who you hope to have ongoing contact with in the future.
Of course, once you know them, you very well might reach out to them to connect you with one of their contacts, or to show them how your software answers some of their challenges. But you’re going to be a lot more effective at doing those things (and they’ll be a lot more receptive) if you save that for later on. For now, just be interested in creating a relationship for the relationship’s sake. Think of it that way, and let the rest come later.
Going with a temperature analogy, networking is done at three levels of trust:
HOT: With people who know you (and trust you)
COLD: With people who have never heard of you and don’t know anyone who does (and thus cannot trust you)
WARM: With people who know people who know you (the initial trust comes from that connection)
It’s generally pretty hard to connect with cold leads, so warm leads (being introduced by a mutual connection like you mention) is priceless. It may not seem that way at first. At first glance, it may seem inauthentic to do an informational interview when you already have a pretty good idea of what the job entails or to meet with someone to chat when what you really want is a job. To resolve that, think of networking as a process, the outcome of which is not a job. The desired outcome is a new acquaintance, a stimulating conversation, or a connection to someone or something else. The desired outcome is you get to find out more about them, and they find more about you… the building blocks of trust.
An introduction is made; then what? Once that introduction is made, all you have to do is be yourself and see if there is a mutual interest in starting and continuing a relationship.
So next, you connect. Have a discussion, perhaps about:
• Your/their philosophy on a topic within the industry or profession
• Your/their career paths and professional interests (what you are proud of or enjoyed in the past, relating common experiences, what you hope to do in the future, what their current challenges or projects are)
• Ask for advice related to a specific problem you are experiencing
• Your/their personal interests (family, hobbies, places you’ve lived and traveled)
With the four topics above, you can probably have a pretty good conversation about something you are both interested about with just about anyone. Pick one as the starting point: “Joe mentioned you have done tons of work with redesigning benefit plans. I would love to get your thoughts about best practices around change management regarding making those transitions; can I buy you lunch sometime in the next week or two?” Usually, but not always, the discussion is about them. You don’t want to be doing most of the talking, so get the flow of conversation going at the beginning by asking them open-ended questions and then respond back with your thoughts, opinions, and experiences.
Sometimes this will lead to a new professional relationship with this person and other times it will not. You already know your “hot” connections are a great way to find a new job or business opportunity. Turning these “warm” referrals into “hot” acquaintances is the way to maximize your chances for success.