Networking. It’s become synonymous with a successful job search. And it can be incredibly powerful – if you do it right. There’s more to networking than firing off LinkedIn requests and milling around careers fairs. I don’t think many people are natural, accomplished networkers – it takes time and practice. So, here’s a starter for five…
Start close to home
I think many us get the chills as soon as soon as we hear the dreaded ‘n’ word. Why? Because it still has rather unfortunate connotations: corporate brown-nosing, fake conversations and all-round schmoozing. The 80s may have ended, but the ghost of Wall Street still lingers. Google still spits out an alarming number of search results for “successful schmoozing” (or for the strong of stomach – power schmoozing!), but don’t let this superficial impression cloud your perception.
In its broadest sense networking is about building and maintaining professional contacts to help you develop your career. And a good place to start is close to home. Many students and grads fail to recognise and leverage their own contacts. You’re already part of multiple, overlaying networks – home, university, work, friendship, online, interest groups, societies, leisure. I had a conversation with a student today that started with, “I don’t know where to start” and ended with a number of concrete leads to follow. All people she knew already!
Make the most of careers fairs, employer presentations and alumni events on campus. You’ll often find these events staffed by recent grads, so you’re knocking at an open door. If anyone knows how it feels to be a job seeking student (or grad), they do.
Don’t be too passive
The advent of social media has been both blessing and curse to the graduate job seeker. The overlap between the personal and professional spheres has allowed people to feel proactive about their job search, without making any extra effort. Just because you’ve liked a few company pages on Facebook, created a few Twitter lists and created a LinkedIn profile, it doesn’t mean you’re actively nurturing your network or generating possible leads.
You may feel more comfortable networking in the virtual world, but this doesn’t give you licence to act as a wallflower! Online networks can be really productive, but not in isolation. If you can talk to someone by phone or arrange a face to face meeting. It’s far too easy to grow online networks and assume your work is done.
Don’t allow your network to wither on the vine – keep active, share updates and follow up. And remember the golden rule of networking: reciprocate and contribute.
Have a purpose
A more formal networking opportunity isn’t just an invitation to push your CV (or business card) into someone’s hands. Employers are looking for bright, resourceful individuals who covered the groundwork themselves. You might have a 5 minute (or even 30 second) window to get yourself noticed, so there’s no margin for error. Ask thoughtful questions that reflect your interest and understanding, and try to structure your conversation to give it purpose and focus. This will also help you overcome one of the biggest hurdles: knowing what to say. This will also help you overcome one of the biggest hurdles: knowing what to say. By thinking and preparing beforehand, you’re less likely to experience that dreaded brain freeze.
Anyone can have a nice chat and exchange pleasantries – and sometimes this may create useful leads – but generally you want to be clear about your objectives and try to emerge with something tangible. That doesn’t mean a job offer or 10 week internship, but it could be exchanging details or a potential referral.
Manage your expectations
Your ‘need’ for a job is not someone else’s problem. People will respond to your interest, enthusiasm and professionalism – not your neediness. Desperation is the death knell of many a job-seeker, and should be avoided at all costs. Try to find routes in that flatter your (potential) contact and choose your words carefully.
“I’m really interested in x and can see that you’ve had a successful and varied career; I’m keen to hear about your experience in the sector and find out a little more about the challenges and opportunities“. This has a very different feel to, “I’m a graduate in x and really need a job in y – can you help?”
It’s more helpful to think of networking as a series of stops on your career journey, not a final destination. Be ready to invest time and energy building your professional network – don’t expect instant gratification. Too often people give up at the first – or second – hurdle and aren’t prepared to play the long(er) game.
Think about etiquette
Consider professional courtesies and etiquette and be attuned to the environment. If you’re at a careers fair, think about the vibes you are projecting to potential employers. For example, whether you’re a French student in the UK, or a British student in France you should seek to converse in the language of the ‘host’ country. OK, you might be speaking to a fellow national, but it’s rude to slip into your own language (or customs) simply because it’s more comfortable. Always be mindful to show your ‘best face’, and leave a lasting impression for all the right reasons.
Networking is a two-way process, not a personal marketing campaign. You may feel you don’t have much to offer at this fledgling stage in your career, but you can model reciprocity through active listening, taking an interest and showing appreciation.
Don’t overstay your welcome: know when to make a tactical retreat! If you manage the first interaction properly, there’s every chance it could lead somewhere. It’s much better to leave feeling slightly frustrated – and wanting more – than exhaust the goodwill of your contact and close the door on any future discussions.
And always, always say thank-you. Courtesy goes a long way.