Networking for Non-Networkers

by Linda Sharkey on August 24, 2009 in Unemployment

networking 150Network, network, network.

After getting a JD from the University of Michigan and working at one New York’s top law firms, the last thing I anticipated was to be scrambling for a job. Welcome to the new reality. Part of my severance package was career counseling from an outplacement firm that offered coaching classes on networking. “Network” was their mantra—and if I’d heeded their advice more closely back in March, I might have avoided a few missteps.

Lots of people, including me, chafe at the idea of leveraging their contacts to meet people who might be in a position to help. And I’m not suggesting, as the New York Times recently did, that you start hitting people up for business cards on the subway. But it doesn’t take a degree in math to know that the more people you know, the more likely you are to hear about career opportunities. And assuming you make a good impression, anyone you meet is one more person who can recommend you, serve as a sounding board for ideas, or even a potential client once you have landed that dream job.

As I’ve learned the hard way, there are better and worse ways to approach people. These tips will help to make your networking more effective and efficient and get you on your way to landing a job—or at least figuring out the next step.

1. Don’t make a conversation the end goal. I got this wrong for a while. It’s called networking because every person you know, knows other people. Ask them who else might have good advice, and turn one conversation into many. When I started to meet friends of friends’ friends, the universe started to feel smaller and the task of finding a job more manageable.

2. Do your due diligence. Google is your friend.  Before you pick up the phone to call someone to whom you’ve been referred, to find out—at least superficially—who they are and what they do. Otherwise, you’ll look unprofessional, reflect badly on the person who referred you, and waste valuable time. Get the basics. If someone gives you Alan Greenberg’s contact information, it might be good to know he was C.E.O. of Bear Sterns before you ask him how his business is.

3. Don’t ask for a job. Yes, that’s obviously what you’re looking for. But chances are they don’t have one—and you risk putting them off. Ask open-ended questions and express interest in their job and organization, with a goal of determining whether your background and skill set might make you a valuable asset in the future. It can also be useful to get their view of current trends in the market; it can lead to more general brainstorming about individuals or organizations to approach. Casting the person as someone with authority to speak on the market might spur them to be a bit more generous with advice. But don’t be obsequious.

4. Develop a thick skin. Most people will want to help in any way they can. Every so often, though, a friend or former colleague will surprise you—in a bad way. One of the best stories I have heard is of a laid-off attorney who called up a former colleague. someone who had  managed to move to another law firm, where there was an opening. She asked if he wouldn’t mind sending her resume to the HR contact. To make a long story short, he refused because he did not want to draw attention to the fact that he was even there. Lots of people are anxious about their futures, and some won’t want to stick their necks out. Don’t take it personally. I have lots of former colleagues at a certain large bank who won’t return my calls. I know they think highly of me, but they fear for their own careers. I have plenty of good experiences to balance out the cold shoulders.

5. Be persistent. The average stretch of unemployment these days is a good six to nine months, so perseverance is the name of the game. Keep talking to people, and when you are introduced to someone new, try and meet them face-to-face to make a stronger impression. Keep an open mind and a positive attitude; people respond better to someone who’s upbeat in the face of adversity.

6. Set goals—attainable ones. For example, try to speak to three new people in your desired field per week. Follow up with thank you emails. Be receptive to letting the conversation flow. It was through casual chitchat after a less-than-stellar conversation with a former professor that I learned of an opportunity that is currently in the works.  And above all, don’t feel embarrassed about asking for help—the number of people laid-off or looking is pretty unprecedented Anyone with some awareness of what’s going on will recognize that they could easily be in your shoes.

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