Putting the ‘Work’ in Networking
Bill Williams, Organizational Learning Consultant
Throughout history, people have relied on informal connections with others to build alliances and find business opportunities, new jobs, and even new careers. Many consultants find work almost entirely through referrals and introductions. Professionals new to organizations learn to navigate and contribute by spending time getting to know peers in other departments. And these days, when hundreds of people may blindly apply for one open position, hiring managers still call fellow professionals to ask, “Know anyone?” when they have a vacancy.
Whatever it may have been called in days of yore, in these tech-obsessed times, we’ve taken to calling it “networking.”
Networking—the kind you do face-to-face, not face-to-Facebook (though we’ll address that, too)—is not everyone’s vision of a good time. For some, the very word conjures pictures of crowded trade association mixers dominated by an army of assertive, well-dressed, glad-handing close-talkers with a seemingly endless supply of business cards. For those of us who are more at home dealing with people one at a time, this can be intimidating. Luckily, that depiction represents only a small slice of what networking truly is.
Networking is simply the practice of making meaningful connections with people, usually one person at a time. Most new opportunities and productive work relationships are made through informal face-to-face contacts based on a few degrees of separation. In this article, I’ll address the basics of how to seek and establish useful connections with others and prepare yourself to represent your capabilities, or those of the group in which you work, effectively. Even if you think of yourself as somewhat shy, you’ll see how this can be done with just a little stretch on your part.
What Can Networking Get Me?
There are several benefits to networking, depending on what your goal is. If you’re already working in an organization and are looking to build stronger relationships with peers in other functions, networking can accomplish the following:
- Provide information to help you spot opportunities for process improvements or new cross-functional initiatives
- Raise your profile to others as someone who looks for ways to contribute beyond the boundaries of their job or department
If you’re an independent consultant looking for new clients, networking can do the following:
- Help you identify people with challenges similar to those you’ve helped other clients solve
- Get your name out among people who might be looking for someone with your talents
And if your aim is to change jobs, or even careers, whether inside your current organization or in a new one, networking can ensure the following:
- Give a potential future employer a name, face, and personality to precede a blind résumé or CV
- Help test your assumptions about whether a particular line of work or organization is right for you
- Build a larger network of people who might keep their eyes peeled for opportunities that interest you
Pursued thoughtfully, networking can potentially yield all of these benefits, and perhaps more. It’s the word “thoughtfully” that matters most. Doing this right takes some preparation and planning. Let’s have a look at the basic ingredients.
If you have ever painted a room in an old house, you know that painting is the least part of the work. First, you have to scrape off old paint, steam off old wallpaper, spackle, and maybe a few other chores. Networking is similar in that you should first ready yourself to talk to others before reaching out. The prep depends upon the goal, though the following basic components are similar:
1. Have a goal that is easy to explain to others
2. Be prepared to tell other people about yourself (or your business or function) succinctly and meaningfully
3. Know what you want to find out from others; you don’t have to be painfully specific, but have some sensible questions mapped out that you’d like answered
4. Start jotting down some notes about who you want to talk to
a. If you don’t know these people personally, make notes about people you know who know them
b. If you don’t yet know who these people are, make notes about who among the people you already know might be able to help you find them
Ultimately, all this prep is intended to ready you for what is commonly called an “informational interview.” There’s more to come on that after we cover some of your prep details.
Articulating Your Goal
If you are going to ask people for a bit of their time to get information, they’ll naturally want to know why. You don’t need to provide them with reams of detail—they just need to understand your purpose. Here are some examples:
If you’re new to an organization: “I’ve been here just a few weeks learning the ropes in financial planning and analysis. I want to get acquainted with all the budget managers in the largest divisions we serve. I think smoother relationships will lead to more open communications about changes in business plans that affect their budgets.”
If you’re a consultant: “I had a chance recently to develop and deliver management training to a new media company. I liked the challenge and now have a better understanding of the culture. If I got to know others in similar firms, maybe I’d find more opportunities for this sort of work.”
If you’re seeking a new job or career: “After two years in accounting operations while finishing my bachelor’s, I’ve become interested in credit policy. I want to find out more about that field, what the environment is like, and what they look for in a person.”
Talking About Yourself
This can be a toughie for the modest person, but it can be easily done without feeling as though you’re bragging or selling. Here are some suggestions for going about it. For the independent consultant and the career seeker, the advice is similar: Be ready to talk about what you do well that you also like to do. Look at the box below and note that, whether you’re an independent consultant or a professional in a company, you’re probably happiest when you’re engaging in the activities in the upper left-hand box.
In your networking, be sure to inform others of these actions. Couch them in terms of transferable skills, career counselor geek-speak for what you know how to do that transcend specific jobs or organizations. For example, analysis of data is a transferable skill. People do it in government agencies, banks, scientific research organizations, media and entertainment companies, and numerous other places. Likewise, training, creative writing, project management, visual design, event planning, and people management are all activities thousands of people do—and enjoy doing—in a variety of settings.
To keep it simple, I recommend a “pick four” strategy to keep your message tight: pick the four transferable skills you possess that you want to use most and be prepared to talk about them. Draw on your real experience. If you want to leave your listener with the sense that you are skilled at, say, marketing communications or management consulting with Internet startups, you need to back it up with something tangible. So look back at your experience and find a couple of good, honest examples illustrating how you used relevant skills toward a productive outcome. Combined with personal acquaintance, this beats a blind résumé or letter of solicitation any day of the week.
If, instead, you’re the professional getting to know others in your organization for collaboration purposes, talking about transferable skills is not important. Instead, be prepared to succinctly explain the purpose of your department or team—don’t assume they know it just because you work for the same organization.
Who Should I Talk To? How Shall I Reach Them?
What all this leads to is the notion that, if you want to raise your profile with others around a field or organization, you need to start talking to people. No chatter = no network. This is the bit that requires something of a leap of faith for those who are intimidated by approaching strangers. The best advice I can give is to start with people you know. Take out a piece of paper and jot down any of the following:
- One or more fields or jobs you’re interested in
- Names of people you want to meet (because of connection to a particular job, organization, or department where you currently work).
Now ask yourself, “Who do I know (e.g., friend, relation, acquaintance) who might have a connection to one of these?” Write down any hunch you have. Regardless of whether anything comes to mind, your next move is to tell the people you know what you’re looking for and ask if they know anyone in that field, organization, or department whom you could talk to. This part is simple and low-pressure. Consider this: At a family gathering, hallway chat, or visit with friends, invariably someone asks you, “How’s everything going?” This is the very opportunity for you to say something like, “Things are pretty good. I have been thinking recently that I should put some thought to:
- … my next career move.”
- … getting to know more about the research department.”
- … seeing if I can expand my consulting practice to businesses in (insert industry here).”
See what their reaction is. Do it enough and someone will eventually say, “Oh, I have a friend/relative/former colleague who might be able to help you.” If they don’t volunteer that, exercise just an iota of assertiveness and ask, “Do you know anyone connected with anything like that?” In either case, if you get a nibble, ask, “Do you think they would be willing to talk to me so I can find out more about that field/organization?” Most people will answer, “I don’t know, but I’d be glad to ask them for you.” That’s the very red carpet you’re looking for. There’s no better way to get acquainted than through a mutual friend or acquaintance.
The ‘Informational’ Interview
The best networking is done in low-pressure circumstances and structured like an interview. People in career counseling call it an “informational” interview. Granted, every interview is about obtaining information. The label is to distinguish it from employment interviewing. Informational simply emphasizes that you are not interviewing for a specific job. Moreover, you are the interviewer.
To be a good interviewer, you need to prepare questions that will get you to the heart of what you want to know. A typical informational interview will last only 30 minutes, maybe an hour if your subject is generous with time. Thirty minutes doesn’t require a lot of questions. A few good open-ended questions will do the trick. The ones you choose depend, again, on your goal and subject.
If you feel hesitant about this—perhaps for fear of rejection—bear this in mind: Most people who enjoy and care about their work are happy to share that with you, provided you’re prepared, respectful of their time, and—most importantly—expect only information in return. No promise of a job, engagement, or anything else. This is just for information, with no strings attached.
As far as questions, here are some samples, depending on the situation:
For those seeking career information:
- How did you get into this field (or organization)?
- What do you like about it?
- What do you think are essential skills and attributes for succeeding in it?
- What kinds of career paths do you see people taking once they’re in this field?
- What are the biggest challenges or frustrations you encounter with this type of work?
- Who else do you know that I might talk with to learn more?
For those networking for future consultancy opportunities:
- Tell me a bit about your organization/function; in particular, what do you think are your top strengths?
- When you think about areas for improvement, what comes to mind?
- How would you define the gap between how things are and how you wish they could be?
For those networking for improved collaboration within their organization:
- For what is your department/team primarily responsible?
- With what other teams/departments do you most closely work?
- Where are things working most smoothly?
- Where could things be better?
- What would you like to know about my team?
As the meeting draws to a close, always ask who else they know who you might talk to. This gets you more referrals, more people to expose yourself to. In this way, you build a network of people who know what you’re looking for and know something about your background.
Finally, thank your contact, both in the meeting and with a polite note or email afterward. They’ve given you the gift of time and knowledge.
With that, you’ve planted the seed. You’ve raised your profile with someone who may be in a position to help and may tell others. You have no idea when or if this will pay off, but it’s a low-cost, low-pressure investment that increases the likelihood you’ll hear about opportunities through your network.
All the preceding information has been about face-to-face networking, which I think is the most critical for giving others an impression of who you are and what you have to offer. But you should use every tool you have to raise your profile, including virtual networking. Here are a few dos and don’ts:
- Set up accounts on sites like Linked-In, which are specifically for professional networks. Make sure your work history and transferable skills are evident.
- Keep your information succinct and don’t make it tedious or painful for others to learn about your professional attributes—excessive acronyms that mean little outside of the places you’ve worked will prove tedious to the reader.
- If you’re going to include a picture of yourself, be mindful of your audience. This is a professional site, so I suggest steering clear of personal shots of you ballroom dancing, playing the banjo, or running a marathon (unless you’re angling to be a dance instructor, bluegrass musician, or personal trainer).
- Be careful of what you post on Facebook or other sites. The line between private and public information has blurred so much that, like it or not, what you post is fair game for others’ judgments. Does your network really need to know (I’m not making this up) about the restraining order your ex has obtained or the details of your most recent DUI? Your use of social media is one big IQ test.
Editor’s Note: Bill Williams will be teaching courses on management fundamentals and leading effective meetings at the 2013 Conference on Statistical Practice.