I was recently asked to lead a webinar on networking for Emerson College alumni. I should say that I hate networking, and can use all the help I can get on that front.
Having agreed to lead the session I couldn't back out, so I asked friends and colleagues (which is to say my network) for their advice. What I learned from those conversations is here, followed by specific advice from friends in a variety of fields.
The short version is "network unto others as you would have them network unto you."
The best networkers view the networks themselves as the point – they like to meet new people, learn about new things, and connect people worth connecting. Those who like networking the least, and ultimately who are the worst at it, are those who view people in networks as means to a personal end (a job, a sale) rather than as an ends in themselves that can result in lots of good things (including jobs or sales).
Here are also two pieces that you may find interesting – the New York Times Magazine on Prof. Andrew Grant’s approach to “giving to get ahead,” and a slide deck from The Start-Up of You, a book by the founder of LinkedIn on networks.
Networking to an end
This is what most of us think of when we hear “networking” and most of us hate it. It’s the chamber of commerce breakfast or industry dinner (there’s a reason so many networking disaster stories involve booze – people have to drink to get through them). And most of us have to do it from time to time. The steps are the same as in a campaign: have a clear goal, determine who has power over that goal, learn what they find persuasive and from whom they find it persuasive, do that. Determine the outcome you want and work backwards through every decision maker until you get to where you are now. Don’t decide you want to drive west and hope you wind up at Disneyland; decide you want to go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and figure out the most efficient route from the front of the line back to your front door.
A lot of the networking advice out there fits this category, and most of it you know: be polite; do basic research on the person ahead of time; have a clear question to ask; know what you want out of the conversation before you go into it; ask for two (or three or one or whatever) more people to talk to; send a handwritten thank you note; avoid public drunkenness; and so forth.
In addition to asking people who network a lot for their advice, I also asked people who get networked at for their thoughts. The answer from all of them can be summed up in the words of a friend who could spend all day, every day, having coffee with people who want something from him: Be someone worth talking to. Be interesting, have something to say, ask good questions, make a personal and professional connection. Don’t view a conversation as an opportunity to beg and whine for 15 minutes, don’t ask for a job if the person starts by saying ‘I can’t give you a job’, basically don’t be that guy. Be someone the person you’re talking to would want to have as a part of their network. Talk to the person you’re talking to as if they were, you know, a person.
Networking as an end
Before using a network, one of course has to have a network. Some of the best networkers don’t “network” at all – the best networkers look for interesting intersections, share and solicit ideas, they develop and maintain both loose ties (people you only see at college reunions or who are “Facebook friends”) and lasting relationships.
This is the more important and more effective strategy. People are social, it’s what we do. We value relationships when it comes to choosing everything from contractors to accountants, and buying everything from art to food. In many ways developing and maintaining relationships, which is to say networking, is the point of being human. As human beings we create and maintain social, familial, and professional relationships. We build and feed networks.
Viewed in this light, networking isn’t about how you get what you want out of pathway of people between where you are and the chair in which you want to sit, rather it is about building relationships. Relationships mean you give without expectation of getting, you look for opportunities to help others succeed, and you say ‘yes’ when asked. If you do this, the network will be there for you when you’re looking for a job, a lead, a client, or a contractor. If all you do is ask, if all you do is promote your own stuff, if you keep score, you’re probably going to fail in the long run, and more importantly you’re dropping your end of the human bargain.
There are as many ways to accomplish build and maintain relationships as there are people. Here are some ideas:
Make helping people in your network like brushing your teeth: do it daily, do it without being asked, and do it without expectation of applause. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Talk to anyone who asks – get coffee, have a call, whatever. Your relatively minor investment of even 15 minutes can mean the world to someone.
Keep running lists of your friends looking for jobs and keep your eye out for opportunities for them.
Plug the work of your friends online – if someone in your Facebook universe writes a book, plug in your timeline, it takes less than a minute and is the right thing to do.
If you can, donate to friend’s causes. If a cause or project is worth time and effort to someone in your network, it’s probably worth the cost of a six pack of beer or a couple cups of coffee to you.
Have coffee or lunch once a week with someone whom you haven’t seen in three months.
Put yourself in a position to meet people – events, dinners, whatever.
Recommend or endorse people on LinkedIn without being asked.
Networking can be like exercise or quitting smoking – easier if you’ve got a buddy to do it with, and against whom you have to measure yourself. Find a networking partner, set goals for each other, and push each other to meet those goals.
Networking Advice From My Network
Below are some replies to a request for networking advice that I posted online. A common theme that emerges from all the advice is that good networking is about making connections and building relationships – it’s not about checking boxes or keeping score. Networking is an opportunity to meet new people and learn about new things, and in turn to introduce yourself to others and offer new perspectives. What emerges from these conversations and relationships is a network of people, ideas and opportunities.
Editor’s note – While Dennis’ advice is focused on his Emerson College connection, the ideas aren’t limited to Emerson. Any alma mater, hometown, or shared experience, can work as a platform on which to build a relationship.
I was recently very impressed by the contact made with me by a current Emerson student (Elizabeth, I think her name was) who was making calls to alumni to get donations. We spoke at length and I never got the sense that she was in any hurry to get to the next person on her list. I was made to feel that she was truly concerned with my college memories and whatever else we talked about. Days later, I received a thank you note and a pledge reminder (although I had not committed to any dollar amount at the time) in the form of a handwritten, personalized note commenting on some of the information I shared with her about my years at Emerson and that REALLY made me think that this was going above and beyond the typical "Please donate" shpiel. This very impressive personalized approach resonated strongly with me and made me feel my money was actually making a difference. More of that "individualized attention" might go a long way in increasing favorable responses.
As for networking in other ways, I've found that the Alumni Office has a wonderful database to connect people but it is always better to be "introduced" to someone by a middle party. If I get contacted by someone I don't know, I'm not as quick to respond as if I get a notice that so-and-so is going to contact me for the following reasons. Then, when I hear from the person, I feel there's a little more of a connection and knowledge of why they're calling and what they need. My own story of getting my dream job happened when I followed up on a job lead and discovered the person hiring was someone who graduated Emerson a couple of years ahead of me. When I cold-called about the job, I made sure to introduce myself and ask if he remembered me. He did, invited me down for an interview, and hired me pretty much on the spot. Friendship notwithstanding, Emerson alumni need to know what Emerson grads are capable of doing and need to keep being reminded that, while the decades and equipment may have changed, the desire to work in whatever field the student pursued is still palpable and just as real as it was when we were in school.
I do temper that bit of idealism with the knowledge that some students don't know how to interact with people on a professional business level. Too often, a student appears insensitive, unimpressive, or just unaware of how their body language, appearance, and critical communication skills fail them. I don't know if it's too much social media, too much video game playing, or not enough common sense, but I've seen some intelligent and capable students get caught up in the "I need/deserve a job" or "You owe me a job" thinking. These students must understand that they have to convince the employer (or alumni) that they cannot just do the job, but that they bring a skill set forward that makes them more valuable to the employer than any of the other applicants. Whether that's an Emerson degree or Emerson experience, it's important to make that connection and everything else will follow. Conversely, if you don't exhibit professional communication skills, it won't matter where you graduated from, nobody will take a chance on you if they think you won't fit into the employment culture of that organization. Good spelling, good grooming and language skills, organizational awareness, being observant and not making your mark right away are always good tips. Be modest, be yourself, and stay focused. The individual you are speaking with, especially if they are an alum, wants to perceive you in the best light - it's their decision to hire you and they don't want to make a mistake especially one based on an emotional tie. Don't come in thinking you're a hot-shot, those in the organization will resent you and your "better than them" attitude. Instead, get to know and develop friendships and courtesy with those you come in contact with. And remember to always use the secret words: "Please" and "Thank you". They help you go further than any directive from management.
Emerson '82, Director, National Events and Partnerships, Macy's Parade & Entertainment Group
Looking for work is an investment both in time, but also a financial commitment.
Subscribing to trade publications/websites is a great investment, but I know it can be pricey. Still it provides instant networking opportunities in that you can start collecting names and titles of the industry players you read about. These names help you develop a database of people you can then begin to reach out to.
Hand in hand with the subscriptions to the trades would be joining LinkedIn at the Business Plus level. Again, while pricey, it allows you "x" number of Inmail's (an email of introduction directly to the contact).
From reading the trades and capturing the names and titles of industry insiders, you can leverage LinkedIn as a means to send them an "Inmail" introduction requesting either an informational interview or to comment on a recent article you read about them.
The LinkedIn recipient may end up providing you with another contact within the company to speak with (hopefully their email address too!). You can then email that person with "At the suggestion of...." in the Subject header, giving it preference to be opened and read.
Yes, it gets expensive. But it’s a worthwhile investment if you want to kick-start your networking efforts.
Another networking opportunity would be to try and attend industry seminars and conferences. Now again, there's a bit of an investment, but what better way than to personally be in the same room in order to connect and introduce yourself in person. Maximize your time at these affairs by always Immediately approaching the speaker/panel afterwards and start networking. Don't be shy!
Always have professionally printed business cards to hand out. And if you're not yet employed, present yourself as the sole proprietor of your own firm or agency.
Remember, perception is reality. Present yourself in a way that shows you are an industry colleague, as opposed to someone simply looking for work.
I know for many students the cost of this tips will be prohibitive, but they are worthwhile in the end. Check in with Alumni Career Services, perhaps they already subscribe to these industry trade pubs, or perhaps can provide you with discounted pricing to attend conferences?
Finally, always keep a finger on the pulse of industry news. Become a fountain of information, for as they say, knowledge is power! Use this power to seek out the people at companies who are best in class, or investing in gaining marketshare. Those are the people you want to get to know and connect with.
Some attributes of success networking: Connections [relationships] enable you to find solutions more efficiently; Connections enable you to call on a wealth of experience/learning/advice outside of your own learning; Connections enable you to be entertained by cute cat memes [laughter is good]… my wife keeps trying to put some more polish on me, but hasn't worked to date…I think that we need to be real careful about being "more polished than we really are." As most folks can smell BS from a mile and a half away - and the quickest way to squash a burgeoning relationship is to be perceived as insincere... I am a chowdahead, so I named my most recent venture the same. Keeps expectations in check –
Writer/Editor, Office of Inspector General, Agency for International Development
Two things my friends and I have pet peeves about: 1) People who drink heavily at networking events. Slurring while trying to get info on a company or job? Fail. 2) Following up with someone you met - shocking how many folks can't write a decent follow up email. Spelling errors, grammar mistakes, etc.
Kathy Murphy Schaeffer
Director of Student Development, Quincy College
I think one of the most important things in networking is based on developing a relationship with someone, not just a "what can you do for me" stance...to often I see people forget this.
Via Adam Conner
Be someone worth talking to…Best Advice from a Facebook star, “Postcards”, Fortune
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