You’ve probably heard the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” – and even though it’s cliché, it’s true, especially when it comes to your career.
Many of the job opportunities that have opened up for me have come, not through a cold call or an Indeed.com listing, but through someone in my network. That can be a college classmate, former coworker, or even a family friend.
Networking has a bad rap because many people associate it with being transactional. It seems that only the most extroverted of extroverts can succeed at networking, and the rest of us are just left in their hand-shaking, back-slapping dust.
But the truth is that if you know people, you have a network. And you should never underestimate the power of your network – as many as 80% of jobs are filled via networking, according to CNBC.
So what are the best networking tips for the reluctant networker? Keep reading to find out.
1. Remember You Have Something To Offer
The concept of networking can feel like a “me, me, me” activity – until you remember that there are companies and hiring managers looking for someone just like you. A record number of Americans have been quitting their jobs in recent months, making good candidates even more valuable to recruiters.
If you’re looking for your first job, an internship, or even just training to improve your skills, there are employers out there who will benefit from that. Remember that you have something to offer! That doesn’t mean you have to toot your own horn to anyone who will listen, but it does mean shifting your mindset if you’re someone who typically shies away from talking about your career goals.
I have several friends and family members who own small businesses, and when they hire a new employee, they put a lot of effort into that decision. Resources are scarce, so when they find a great candidate to hire, it’s cause for celebration. An applicant who comes recommended by a friend carries extra weight for these business owners. Having that extra level of assurance – and knowing that an applicant is respected within their network – is huge.
Knowing that an applicant is respected within their network is huge.
So if you’re afraid to approach an acquaintance who occasionally mentions their company is hiring, forget your fear and just do it. Chances are they’ll be just as happy to finally fill the spot on their team as you are to find a new job. And they might even get a little bonus check from the company for referring you (win-win!).
2. Networking Doesn’t Just Happen at Networking Events
Have you ever been to a networking event or an industry conference? They can be slightly awkward – a little bit of small talk, a lot of conversation lulls, and people saying “Sorry, remind me of your name again?”
Some people think you have to introduce yourself to everyone in the room in order to be a networking success. But my friend Gabriella Hoffman, an entrepreneur/podcaster/columnist extraordinaire, says there’s no need to stress yourself out if you didn’t shake every hand.
“Make sure your networking strategy is more strategic and less like speed dating. Quality over quantity applies here too,” Gabriella told me.
Becoming comfortable at networking events is its own special skill set (check out this blog from Hubspot for some solid tips), but you definitely don’t need to spend hours and hours at networking events to “get ahead.”
Think about all the people you encounter on a daily basis – whether it’s a phone call from your aunt or a chat with the person sitting beside you at the coffee shop. That’s a lot of opportunities to spread the word that you’re looking for a job, or if you’re an entrepreneur, to let them know you’re taking new clients. Even if you narrow those connections down to just those in your professional orbit, I can guarantee you have more connections than you think.
The key to making connections that will benefit both you and the other person is – gasp! – self-promotion. It’s something that many women are uncomfortable with, but it doesn’t have to mean obnoxious bragging. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article detailed the gender gap in self-promotion that results in women getting fewer raises and promotions. Men rate their own performance a whopping 33% higher than “equally performing” women, according to the study.
Going back to my first point – you have a lot to offer. And those in your network want to share in your success. Being a good networker doesn’t just mean sending out an SOS when you need a job, it also means keeping your connections up-to-date on your accomplishments. The next time you hit a career milestone – like receiving an award from your company, planning a big event, or even celebrating a “workiversary” – blast out a brief email update to your contacts. You’d be amazed at what you’ll hear back!
3. Ask Questions instead of Complaining
If you find yourself at a networking event chatting with someone a few years ahead of you, there’s one major pitfall to avoid: complaining. Sure, it feels good to get your feelings about your dead-end job off your chest, but there are much better topics of conversation. No one likes a complainer, and they certainly don’t want to hire one.
This doesn’t mean you have to lie – if you’re unhappy in your current job, it’s okay to be honest – but you should focus on asking questions and learning what you can from the other person. Being good at networking is basically just treating someone how you would want to be treated: being present in the conversation and finding common ground.
I’ve been at happy hours where the person I was talking to just wanted to know if there was anyone “important” I could introduce them to – and I could tell they were looking over my shoulder at the other people in the room while we were talking. Not exactly endearing.
You should value information over “favors.”
Don’t be that girl. You should value information over “favors,” because information is the most valuable asset of all. For example, I have so many friends who wish they had done more digging before starting a job at a toxic company – chatting with just one person who had worked there would have helped them make a more informed decision. They were in need of information, not favors.
But conversations at networking events can be cut short – what if you’re in the middle of a riveting discussion when someone else inserts himself and changes the subject? Try to exchange information as soon as you can in the conversation so you can pick back up where you left off. Depending on your industry, handing someone a business card may be your best bet, but in some other industries, you can be more casual. As someone who has bounced around in journalism and PR, following someone on Twitter is my form of a business card exchange.
Have a plan for connecting with the interesting people you meet professionally, and try to send brief follow-ups the next day letting them know it was nice meeting them. You can also include a line about any possible partnerships or leads you discussed the night before!
4. Find a Mentor a Few Years ahead of You
I’ll admit that the concept of finding someone to be your career mentor, as opposed to a friend, never sounded very organic to me. Meeting with someone once every few months to go over your career goals and get advice just sounded cold and calculated – I decided to pass, even if it took me longer to reach my goals.
I never thought I would have a mentor until I realized that the definition can be much more flexible. I have many friends who started their careers a few years ahead of me, and I have always appreciated their insights about navigating the work world, even if they were just telling me an anecdote about a frustrating day in the office.
Years later, I still find myself referencing the tips I gathered from these wise friends. I never asked them to meet for coffee just to discuss work, and I never referred to them as my “mentors,” but they truly served in that capacity for me and answered my questions.
One of my pet peeves is when a person thinks that if they can just connect with someone at the top of their field and convince them to be their mentor, they’ll have it made. I’m sorry, but fangirling over a famous author at her book signing is not exactly the way to convince her that mentoring you is the best use of her time. I think many people confuse clout with someone’s ability – or desire – to actually be a good mentor.
Some people are born “connectors,” and that makes them natural mentors. The best example I have of someone who’s a connector is my husband. I can’t even count how many people he has helped land jobs (some of whom he has hired at his small business). Now he runs a nonprofit created, in part, to help highly skilled people who lack the “right” personal connections break into policy in Washington, D.C.
My husband enjoys spending one-on-one time with people who want career advice. He doesn’t care that the other person can’t necessarily do anything for him in return. This is the kind of person who is the most valuable to have in your corner.
There are many ways to identify “connectors” when you encounter them in the wild: they immediately set a date to meet with you, they get excited thinking about how they can help you reach your goals, and they tell you that they remember being in your shoes just a few years ago.
Sure, it’s cool to be able to tell people that your “mentor” is verified on Twitter or has written a book, but if you can’t get an email back from them, how helpful is that? Realize the value of the people around you who thrive on helping others.
5. Pay It Forward
It’s easy to get caught up in our own worries about our boss, our job, or our coworkers. It’s harder to remind ourselves of all the people who’ve helped us along the way. The best way to pay it forward is to help other people who are just starting out.
Realize the value of the people around you who thrive on helping others.
I will always make time for a phone call with a college student who wants to talk about what it’s like to go into journalism. I may never hear from them again, but I would have appreciated someone telling me which internships to apply to when I was that age. Even if you’re only a few years into your career, there’s someone out there who can benefit from what you’ve learned so far.
Go the extra mile to connect with someone who mentioned they may be interested in your career path. Reach out to your college professor you haven’t seen in a few years and ask if any college students need mentors. There are a million ways to give back!
I hope I’ve been able to help you broaden your view of networking. It’s not just stuffed shirts bragging about their quarterly sales numbers over cocktails, it’s a mindset of both asking for help and doing the helping. I’ve found that career success is not a zero-sum game – and oftentimes, it’s who you meet along the way that matters most.
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