If you’re unemployed or worried about your job, networking is the #1 way to get a job. But it’s more than that: Networking is about building professional relationships. And reaching out to connect, share info, and strengthen those relationships is one of the best things we can do right now.
So … how do you network during a major global crisis — when conferences, mixers, and even the classic “grabbing a quick coffee” aren’t options?
The “secret” to successful networking
Many people say they feel uncomfortable or are afraid they sounded “desperate” when trying to network.
The first way to deal with discomfort is to just do it. Start reaching out to people, and integrate connecting into your daily routine. Most things get easier the more you do them.
But the real secret here is to change how you think about it. Research shows that if you’re reaching out to people with just a “how can you help me?” mindset, it likely won’t feel great — plus, it’s less likely to get you the help you want. Instead, the key to building a network is trust, aka “caring for others and being interested in their well-being and goals.”
So think about what you can give to people, not just what you can get. Consider connections as ongoing relationships.
How to provide value
With so many people still out of a job and so many others affected in some way or another, now is a logical and meaningful time to reach out and support people. If you have the power to help (and you do, whether in big ways or small), that builds powerful relationships. Here are a few things you might do:
Offer to help people with their job search.
Share interesting or useful info with your network — job search tips, analyses of the industry you’re in, perspectives.
Spread the word about job opportunities in your industry that aren’t for you (accountant if you’re a designer, for example).
Offer to help someone practice job interviewing virtually. This can also give you new perspective on your own interviewing skills.
Connect people to each other. So much of networking throughout your life is to play an “I’ve got a person for that” or “You REALLY need to meet her!” role.
Organize something, like a group. Bringing people together to discuss a common problem or pursue a common interest is hugely valuable.
When people ask for help, help.
Yes, there’s value in it for you, too
Obviously, if you’re looking for a job right now, that’s your priority. Tell everyone you’re looking, even people you don’t think you can help. (You’d be surprised.)
But don’t let getting a job be your only measure of successful networking! Here are a few other things you can get out of it:
Learning more about your industry.
Getting help tackling a problem or making a decision.
Finding out what a job’s really like.
Sharing expertise, tips, best practices.
Building your reputation as someone to collaborate with.
Finding a mentor or someone you can mentor.
Widening your network overall.
Telling your story
If you’re looking for a job, your priority should be to get your personal narrative out there. Most people you talk to won’t be the hiring manager or the HR person. But they might know that person — and if they have a good sense of your story, they can pass it along.
Your personal narrative is the story you tell about yourself professionally — and as a human. It’s not a script, but rather talking points about the things you want people to know. When telling your story, you should say what you do professionally, of course. You should also include who you do it for and why you do it. Talking about your own passions and how they affect other people makes your career come to life.
You want to get a short, memorable form of that narrative out there as you’re networking. Talking points for a super-short personal narrative could be:
I do (thing you do) for (who you do it for) to help them (benefit somehow) by (how you do it well) because (why you do it).
Who should be in your network?
Your goal is to build a diverse network, where you’re connected to a lot of different circles, age groups, levels of seniority, industries, and backgrounds. When your network is not just people from your same background, you’ll find more opportunities and more perspectives.
FYI: Women need all those diverse networking connections, plus a trusted inner circle of women who can share things that you don’t get in job descriptions — like whether that potential employer actually promotes women, or what kind of salary to ask for.
Start with people you know
Friends and regular acquaintances
This is the easy part. You just talk like you normally would, but about work specifically:
We haven’t talked about work in a while. Checking to see if you’re OK and how it’s going. (We got hit by layoffs so I’m searching for a job, but glad to be healthy and safe otherwise.) Let’s connect on video soon?
Hey! Just checking in. I heard there were layoffs at your company — you OK? How can I help?
It can be helpful to focus on people you’ve worked with. (One study showed that 60% of people who found a job did it through former coworkers.) Then you can widen out to other people you’re connected to.
So take a look at the LinkedIn profiles of former coworkers, classmates, or other connections. Where have they worked? What might you learn from their stories? How can you help? Respect their time by staying short (a couple of paragraphs), and tell them why you’re reconnecting.
I can’t believe it’s been four years since we worked together at CompanyX! How are you doing through all this? You might have heard there were layoffs at X, so I’m looking for something new. Meanwhile, I started a diversity in data science group on LinkedIn — I remember that was something you were passionate about, and thought you might want to join.
We met at the Women Chefs Conference a while back — I ran across your profile on LinkedIn in my job search today and thought I’d check in. How are you doing these days? I’m passionate about women helping women in this business (now more than ever), so if you need a friendly review or sounding board, let me know! I’d be happy to connect online.
Move on to people you don’t know
Networking with people you don’t know yet is the hardest part for most people … but it will really make your network more diverse (and therefore stronger).
Get active on LinkedIn by joining groups around your interests. If you don’t see a group, start one! Share relevant articles and thoughts with them. Find interesting people to follow, and comment on what they share. Groups and comments are easy ways to start a conversation with people you don’t know — which makes you memorable when you decide to reach out individually.
Take time to update your LinkedIn profile and any other platform you’d be using to connect. People will look at it when you reach out. (Set your profile to “public” so people can find you, too.)
Beyond LinkedIn, many (if not most) professional networking groups and alumni groups have pivoted to virtual events. You can also search for Slack communities in your field to join. The same approach applies to any online group: Be helpful, share interesting info, and engage in conversations.
With individual people
Reaching out to a stranger might feel daunting — but it can really help. Start by looking through LinkedIn for people who are in an industry, role, or company you’re interested in — along with people you legitimately admire. Think about reaching out to people at different levels and in different roles and industries.
Your basic approach can be that short personal narrative, plus a reason to connect with them:
I do (thing you do) for (who you do it for) to help them (benefit somehow) by (how you do it well) because (why you do it). I’d like to connect with you because (reason).
A few tips:
Keep it short (it’s more likely to get read).
Be grateful when you make a request (it can double your response rate).
Find something memorable you have in common.
Meeting through someone you both know can give meaningful context about you. Don’t be afraid to ask a mutual acquaintance for an intro, if you have one.
Be specific about why you want to connect — but don’t ask for a job in your outreach. This is meant to be a meeting of the minds. Job talk can come later.
Don’t ask to “pick their brain” (their brain is not something to be mined — this nearly always comes off as disrespectful).
Once you get a reply, follow up with a few specific times and ways to have a conversation.
How to have a virtual networking conversation
Before you actually talk, get familiar with Zoom and Google Meet (they’re both free) so you can give people options. Practice setting up meetings with a friend so you’re sure how each platform works.
You can also practice the conversation a bit. It will help you feel more natural about how to bring value, share your story, and talk about your job search. Ask for feedback on your presence: How’s the eye contact? Are you interrupting? (That’s easy to do over video, where you might not hear the difference between a breath and the end of a thought.)
Once you’re comfortable, it’s time to have the actual conversation. A few guidelines:
Come prepared. If you asked for the meeting, expect that you will be leading and driving it. Now is not the time to sit back and relax. Have an agenda that you can reference on the side. You don't necessarily need to share it, but it will help you with purpose, priorities, and flow (which makes you come across very professional and prepared — a great first impression!).
Show respect. Start your meeting on time. Make your environment as quiet as it can be from home. (Kids are kids, but you can shut windows and silence your phone.) Remind them why you’ve asked for their time.
Have some questions ready to get the conversation started quickly. Make them specific to the person you’re talking to, and to what you’re interested in. Google them beforehand if you need to, so you’re familiar with their work.
This is a personal conversation, not a pitch. Listen. Ask questions that show you really are listening. Look for things in common. Let your conversation evolve. You can always follow up if you don’t get to something you wanted to talk about.
Make a specific offer to help if you can.
Write a thank-you note as soon as you’re done. If you offered to do something … do it. Touch base later on to follow up on anything you explored in the conversation. Show you’re someone who can be relied on.
Every day is an opportunity to reach out to another human, to form or strengthen a connection, and to feel good about what you might be able to do together. That can be a huge growth move professionally … and also personally.
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