Thursday, June 16, 2011

Networking revisited

We’ve all heard at least one rant about the importance of “networking” and had at least one friend complain about some “insider” getting a job the friend coveted.  What to make of that?

Matthew Powell shared a great post from Harvard Business School (HBS) on the NFtJS Linkedin group recently and when combined with the number of NFtJS participants going back to work, it got me thinking about this process again.   Both of these demonstrate that networking works.  The challenge is to make it work for us.  The Harvard article does about as good a job as we’re likely to encounter laying out the basic technology of networking and who to network with. 

It’s a business school, so they ignore personal values and ethics, but in our lives these are critical.  Attempting to establish a warm relationship with someone you don’t respect is just plain a bad idea.  The number of problems it generates are very difficult to overstate and normally will drive bad outcomes.  So don’t even attempt. 

They also miss what is the single most important element: How to start the conversation, how to initiate the connection. 
How do we (you) start these conversations?  Obviously, there is no single magic question or line that will always get something useful started, anymore than there is a single line that will initiate great relationships with potential life partners.  What I can suggest is an approach:
·         Make the call.  Waiting for someone else to create relationships that your livelihood is dependent on is risky at best and a disaster at worst.  Nothing happens until you pick up the phone and make the call. 
·         Prepare!  Learn what you can about the person, their role and what they are responsible for, then write out your questions ahead of time
·         Pay it forward.  A bit of a cliché, I know, but it works.  While starting a conversation with, “How can I help?” has gotten pretty tired, there are an infinite number of variations and the more research you do, the more relevant and focused your questions can be. Here’s some examples:
o   How long have you been in this position?
o   What successful events occurred that gained you (the promotion, getting hired)?
o   What do you like best about your job?
o   What are your biggest challenges?
o   Where do you think your job function is going in the future?
·         Practice.  There are people for whom this is natural, but that isn’t most of us.  For most of us, we need a lot of practice.
One of the primary points the HBS post makes is that when networking, not all people are created equal.  Through position or personality, some folks do count more than others.  Some people connect more naturally and more often.  In every case of networking for business, we want the biggest bang for our buck and that starts by recognizing that the CEO has more clout than the receptionist.  Don’t discount the receptionist; they can be great resources for understanding a company and great allies in your career, they just aren't the CEO.

One of my clients is an Urban Planner, who had relocated to Seattle from Colorado about three years ago.  When she got here, she didn’t know anyone.  She was following her husband.  She applied to every job she was qualified for and just got no traction.  Eventually she started working with me and we came up with a networking strategy designed to create the local professional relationships she needed, and she started implementing the plan.  She also connected with her network from Colorado, assuming it might pass something back into the Seattle area.  What happened was that her Colorado network did what networks normally do, what every network normally does--they found an opening with someone they knew well; then they passed a resume to this person along with a recommendation, etc. etc. in Colorado.  Guess what happened next…  She got the job.  She got the interview because she used to work with someone who used to work with someone who was hiring.  She got the job because she was qualified AND she had been vouched for by someone the hiring influence knew and trusted.

The point is that “networks” are personal and local and by far the most important part of your job search.  The more you work on them, the more they will work for you.