Most people not only dread networking, but they also feel physically dirty after engaging in the activity, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review. Despite evidence that networking is essential for career success and advancement, I have yet to meet a job seeker excited about it. Whether you are still exploring opportunities, looking to advance in your current field or curious about switching careers, networking can help. That said, many regard networking as disingenuous, as an unpleasant activity one must do to get a job. No wonder people feel dirty after attending networking events!
Job seekers believe that if they just go to events and conduct informational interviews, something magical will happen and they will leave with an offer. After only one interaction, students often complain that “nothing happened." Expecting that people you just met will gladly give you a job is unrealistic. Even if they offer to become a reference, the gesture won't have much weight because they don't know you yet and can't advocate for you. They may also not have the power to influence hiring decisions.
So if you shiver every time someone mentions networking, you may want to focus on cultivating meaningful relationships instead. Maintaining the practice throughout your career is key for long-term success since you don't know where you will be in a year or more.
Not sure how to start cultivating meaningful relationships? I have you covered.
Identify Potential Contacts
Start with who you know by tapping into the strong relationships with family and friends you already have. Not only will you have the opportunity to clarify your focus and practice articulating it, but these connections could serve as bridges leading to new connections. Having someone introduce you makes it less stressful and scary when you connect with strangers. Next, touch base with people who are not part of your inner circle but could offer valuable insights: your professors, your supervisors and colleagues at internships or volunteer sites. Communicate your intention and seek guidance on resources to check out.
When you have an idea of target roles and employers, look beyond people you know and use available resources to discover additional connections. LinkedIn is a great place to start, and if you haven't yet created a focused and polished profile, stop reading this and go do that first. I'm not kidding. LinkedIn can help you identify influencers as you embark on building a network of meaningful connections. Pay attention to those in positions that allow them to influence hiring decisions. Many students assume that reaching out to entry-level staff is easier, but they are the ones less likely to have any hiring influence.
Lastly, consider people you admire. Do you have a favorite podcast? A favorite author or blogger? Someone you follow on social media because they do what you'd like to do? These would be great additions to your potential contacts list.
Research Those Contacts
As you build your list of potential contacts, be sure to research each one thoroughly so you get to know them. You'll confirm what intrigues you about them and establish points of commonality, thus better preparing for a conversation. Keep in mind that information found on LinkedIn and other professional pages takes priority. If you happen to come across a personal social media account, it's best not to bring up what you find there to avoid looking creepy.
Personalize Your Outreach Message
If you do your homework, conduct in-depth research and identify commonalities, you are ready to craft an effective outreach message. There are certain things you can do to increase your open and response rates, but the key is that you customize the message based on your research findings. An important aspect of cultivating meaningful relationships is a focus on quality over quantity. Sure, if you send the same message to 1,000 people, a few may respond, but is that how you want to connect with opportunities? Take control of your career development and focus on customizing messages to people you genuinely want to speak to.
The reason many people feel dirty after networking is the misguided belief that you need to pretend to be a certain person to get others to listen to you and do you favors. A better strategy is to be genuine. You need to know who you are and what energizes, motivates and inspires you. Also, you want to truly be intrigued by the story of the person in front of you. When you are genuinely interested in what a person does, follow content they produce online, and know what you can learn from them, you have a better chance of constructing an effective outreach message and enjoying a meaningful initial conversation.
When you are finally chatting with potential contacts, avoid letting them lead the conversation. Consider a variety of open-ended questions to engage with people on a more meaningful level, make them feel special and get to know them. Don't forget to be fully present and listen when the person responds to your questions. If you are in your head thinking about what to say next and how to impress them, you are not paying attention, and guess what? They can tell that you are not paying attention, which will prevent the connection from happening.
Offer to Help
If you are a college student or recent graduate, you may think that you have nothing to offer but that's not true. If you really have nothing to offer, why would anyone consider you a valuable asset to invest in? A main goal of an initial conversation is to make people like you, but you also want to find out what pains them so that you can think of ways to help them address the pain. During that first interaction, consider asking them about challenges their organization or team faces. You can use the information to come up with a proposed solution and impress them.
Keep in Touch
The most important aspect of cultivating meaningful relationships and the one that many job seekers ignore is keeping in touch with contacts. Cultivating relationships takes time and you never know when the interaction could lead to an opportunity, so you want to make sure you remain visible. The onus is on you to maintain the relationship, and remember that it's important to bring value. Don't expect the other person to do the work and make your career happen.
Allow for Serendipity
Employing a well-thought-out strategy to building meaningful connections is a useful tool in your career development toolbox, but you want to also allow for unplanned interactions. Those could not only lead to a strong connection, but even better, they could introduce you to options you haven't even considered. So don't dismiss an invitation to an event you think won't introduce you to people in your area of interest; don't pass on an opportunity to take a free class and learn something new; and don't ignore information about a trend in your field that seems way out there. Stay open to such chances and notice where happenstance takes you.