Networking, or Informational Interviewing is one of the most valuable strategies for gathering information and establishing contacts. It can enable you to: Gain a firsthand impression of a particular employer or industry; get practical ideas and insider advice about how to enter that field; get contacts with other people in your area of interest; develop and maintain friendly relationships with your contacts; enlarge the list of people who can alert you to job opportunities.
“Networking” entered everyday business language in the mid 1990’s, and acquired a degree of mystique that it didn’t deserve. It is widely recognised now as an essential in business life and in progressing a career. To see how people understand the importance of networking, notice how many dedicated groups and networking clubs that have sprung up.
In this article we take away that mystique and explain why you should network as a key part of any career search. And how you should do it. Let’s get to the “Why” first. Think about hiring from the employer’s point of view for a moment. It is quite costly in time and in money, and it is risky and uncertain. The costs will come through in fees to professional recruiters or headhunters if the organisation choses to outsource the work. If they do it in-house, the cost come in the time of the people who have to write and place ads, deal with responses, arrange interviews, write to candidates, and so on.
So what would employers prefer in an ideal world? Just what you and I would prefer. Someone we know, or who is recommended to us by someone we trust. That way they come with a sponsor who knows how they work and what they can do. And that counts for a lot. That’s why a lot of companies pay bounties to staff who introduce new staff members (provided they join and prove capable.) There’s no real mystique to networking. Nor is there any special difficulty. Let’s take a look at: what it is, what it isn’t, and how to do it.
What is Networking? First off, it is not pushing yourself onto people who don’t want to talk to you. It is not like ‘cold call’ selling or telemarketing. Networking in the job search context, is simply talking to people you know, and to people they know, to get useful information and advice. Hopefully (as is the case so often) it will in time, uncover an opportunity that the rest of Joe Public does not yet know about.
It’s a process through which you build up your contacts. And it is reciprocal, not a one-way street. You have to give to receive. But the great part about it is that other people are pleased to enlarge their network too and by speaking with them, you have joined it. At some point in the future, assuming you stay in touch, you may well be in a position to help them with some information.
Here’s a real example of how networking works. Naturally, we have changed the names of those involved. Susan wanted to improve the amount of time she spends with her kids by leaving her hectic finance job and getting into school teaching. Through asking around the people she knows, she found a piano teacher who takes individual pupils and teaches at her home. They chat and it turns out the piano teacher has a friend whose daughter teaches school. Susan and the daughter get together on the phone a few times. (in person would be better, but they live too far apart).
Susan finds out about what is involved, where to get the training, the upsides and the downsides to the job and so on. A year or two later, Susan is more than willing to advise someone else about “mature entry” into teaching….or for that matter, about her previous job in financial services.
Anybody can network effectively. You don’t have to be an especially out-going person. The key skills are: listening; asking open questions without making it an interrogation; and most important of all – taking a genuine interest in the other person. Never treat the other person just as a doorway to a “more useful” contact. We’d all resent being treated like that. Here are the main principles of networking: Most people you know will help you if they can. Most people are happy to give information, opinion and advice. Everybody knows somebody. We all know that one day we may be glad of a returned favor. Most of us like to consider we are knowledgeable about certain things and enjoy showing that expertise. Most people will be willing to suggest others to talk to, provided they found talking to you was an ok experience and didn’t take up too much of their time or put them in an awkward spot.
Getting started – Make a list of everyone you know and start with people you know quite well. That way you get practice with friends before you try the process with strangers. Explain you are NOT coming to them because you think they know of a job for you (that makes them feel put on the spot) but you would value their thoughts and advice on (your plans or whatever.) For some, you may be in touch for specific information. “John told me you have been in the pharmaceutical industry for some years .I wonder if I may pick your brains .”.
It is good to have something to kick off the conversation. For instance: ” I am thinking about doing (—) what do you think of the idea?”. You can ask for an opinion on the marketability of your skills. Be careful not to give the impression this is code for “know of any jobs?”. You must build some rapport, it must not turn into an interrogation or an episode of a quiz show. Give something to the other person. Now or later. We are not talking about commercially sensitive or confidential information here. But something of use to them. Maybe “Here’s an interesting article you may not have seen…” Ask for other contacts. Obviously not early in the meeting. But you can ask if “there is anyone else you know who might not mind giving me twenty minutes”. Do thank people who gave you their time. At the time, and with a note later. Keep them informed when you make your career move. Express gratitude for their help “which greatly contributed to .” .
A few things NOT to do with your networking contacts:
Take up too much of their time; interpreting polite interest as “please talk more”;
Ask for a job – unnecessary and puts people in an awkward spot;
Overtly only wanting their contacts, not their views or ideas;
All about “me” and what I want.
It is never too late to develop a network, and it is a big mistake to let one decay when that new job comes along. Developing and maintaining good contacts does take some time and effort, but you can expect to see increasing returns from doing it.