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A step-by-step guide to networking


Whatever your age and experience, this 10-point strategy will help you connect

By Ken Hoffman

You might be a recent college graduate looking for your first “real job.”

You may be hitting the reset button after a corporate reorganization.

Or you may have seen your entrepreneurial dream fizzle...and are now hustling to figure out where the next paycheck might come from.

For varied reasons, all of us land in work transition zones at one time or another—and need to launch ourselves into a job hunt.

At these times, everyone tells us it’s critical to network. But it’s rare to get advice on just how to do that in a day-to-day, practical way.

I’ve done my share of networking for new jobs and financing startups – and helped colleagues and extended family as they launched networking initiatives.

So I decided to organize my top 10 job-search tips that revolve around networking. I see it as roadmap that takes the feeling of uncertainty you may have and transforms it into excitement about a positive process.

  1. You will find the job you are looking for through people you know, and the people they know. Yes, there are helpful aids and resources like job boards, career fairs, social media and books like “What Color is Your Parachute?” However, they are secondary and supportive to the main focus -- networking with people who can help you or lead you to the ideal opportunity.

    Who are these people? Everyone you can brainstorm who might be relevant and helpful – including friends, friends’ parents, former colleagues, business contacts, people you admire and don’t know, business leaders in your industry and people you know from organizations, including college alumni networks.

    List these people and then rank them 1 (highest) to 3 (lowest) in terms of how much you think they will be able to help you. The priority could be “potential to make an introduction to someone important,” “ease of access to the person,” or “potential to provide a job.”

  2. Finding a job is primarily a numbers game. The easiest way to increase your chances of finding the right job is to meet more people. Period. And it has the secondary benefit of expanding your contacts -- which typically helps you in the next job and all future jobs. Most people who are settled into jobs are so focused on their core work they do not have free time to simply network and meet people. So every foray into job-hunting can be a rare and enlightening period if you approach it correctly.
  3. Don’t start networking actively until you know what you are going to say. Remember the adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression?” It’s true. So before your first meetings, try to get laser-focused on the type of opportunity you are looking for; the skills and attributes you have to offer; the locations where you are willing to live; the people you need to meet; and other key factors.

    You may have a wide range of skills and experience, especially as you get older. But most prospective employers don’t want to pick and choose from a “fruit basket” of skills and interests. They are seeking someone with clear expertise for a specific job. Use the rule of 3: identify no more than 3 things you can offer; 3 points you want to make; 3 skills, achievements and behaviors to focus on that will fulfill the needs of an employer. Don’t make the mistake of thinking others will “get you and figure it out.” That only leads to confusion and disappointment for both parties.

    Then practice your pitch on friends, family and others. Be open to feedback and incorporate it. Your story will take a richer shape as you move forward. You should expect to start cautiously. But job searches tend to build momentum. So make sure you are ready for the “4th quarter” of the game before it comes.

  4. Start organizing meetings with people who have advice or information. Don’t confuse meetings with job interviews. Most meetings can be approached and scheduled as “networking” and “informational interviews.” You can say something like: “I’m getting started on my search for a job and would welcome your advice, guidance and perspective.” In that way, people you meet will not assume these are interviews and will not treat them as such. And they will probably be flattered that you value their knowledge. “Real” interviews will happen, but they will be obvious when they do. So, don’t freak out yourself or the person you are meeting with by approaching these like job interviews. These meetings are invaluable in providing insight into your target industry, skills required to succeed, and potential jobs from experienced operators. Expect them to last 30 to 60 minutes.

    Who do you see first? Once you have practiced, I’d recommend focusing on the highest-value contacts – people with the greatest expertise and largest circle of information and influence.

  5. Informational interviews do two things. First, they remove the stigma of “I am looking for a job.” They provide a reason to meet people, and they relax direct pressure on those individuals. Second, they provide a chance to expand your network and your knowledge. Be sure you are clear about what you want from the conversation. The next best thing to a job offer is an introduction to two or three more people -- and that should be one of your goals.
  6. Make it easy for those people helping you. Do everything you can to ease the burden on the people you see. Meet at their offices and locations they prefer. Meet them at times easy for them. Send them Outlook Calendar invitations for meetings. Send everyone your vCard – your digital business card -- so they don’t have to type in your contact information.
  7. Do the maximum research possible before each meeting. Nothing will sour a meeting like the impression you were not prepared. You should know the background of the person you are meeting in every way possible, professionally and personally -- company history, target clients, products they sell, size of their operation. It also helps if you know about their family and interests. You don’t have to use the information – and don’t demonstrate your knowledge just to do it. But you want it available if needed.

    Follow up on any action items discussed. Don’t expect the people you meet to take notes or remember anything from your discussion. If they tell you they will do something after the meeting, ask them if it would help if you sent them a note about it afterwards. It’s a lot easier to forward an email than initiate one.

  8. Be prompt and timely. Get to meetings early. There are no excuses for wasting the time of someone who is trying to help you. Who wants to recommend or hire someone who cannot be on time when asking for help?

    As each meeting ends, say thanks and summarize its benefits. For example: “Thank you. I really appreciate you making introductions for me.” Or: “Thank you. If you hear of anyone that wants someone with my skills, please think of me.” Or: “Thank you. I appreciate learning more about (your industry).”

    If someone makes an introduction for you, follow up right away or it reflects poorly on him or her. If you hear of an opportunity, drop what you are doing and pursue or research it. Most individuals in your network are engaged in their jobs and very busy, so even the appearance of slacking or wasting time is fatal to your reputation.

  9. Look for small ways to give back to those helping you. After you meet someone, try to find something small you can do to show appreciation: An introduction to someone you know. A recent article pertaining to something you discussed. A small piece of research you can do in 10-15 minutes. At the minimum, a hand-written thank-you note will have a big impact.
  10. You need a scorecard to measure progress and keep your facts straight. Once you get started, you will be amazed by how much time you spend effectively networking with people each day. You will meet more people in a short period than you ever have and they are all important people in a professional setting. You will have varied information to manage, and you need a tool to keep things straight. Imagine getting an unexpected important call from a fantastic reference and not being able to instantly recall the source? It will happen, and – trust me -- it’s humiliating if you fumble the call.

    While networking more than 10 years ago, my brother Bob introduced me to an engineer who recommended creating a spreadsheet to organize basic information, set goals, measure progress, and document results. It helps with the simple business of tracking names, email addresses, appointment times and locations. My version is different than his, and yours will be different than mine.

    Use columns to organize the data: name, company, email, phone, mutual connections or “introduced by,” general notes, follow-up date, meeting date, or a thank-you-note date. If you don’t have any meetings in a given day, spend the time researching and building the database of contacts you will call shortly. Use LinkedIn and other sources to find your way to those people you don’t know. Record those links in your spreadsheet so you can instantly recall them during phone calls, or in a few weeks to aid your memory.

    You can color-code individual contacts to reflect your priorities. You might use green to delineate your top 5-10 target individuals, for example, so you can visualize your workload for the day: Green means “go.”

    Once you have made contact and have a call or date set up, color them blue to mean “active.”

    If a lead turns into a dead-end or you exhaust that person as a resource, color it red and give it the lowest priority.

Good luck…

These 10 steps aim to help you create a consistent process that you strengthen with practice over time. If all goes well, it will build your confidence and enrich self-understanding.

You may snag a job you love before you talk to everyone on your list.

If so, congratulations!

Once you have a job….
Save all this information. The people you’ve met are now part of your network – and may be relevant to your new position.

They may become friends, colleagues, clients, customers – who knows?

You may find yourself at your new job for years – or realize it’s not a perfect fit after 18 months.

Most important, as your career moves along, make a point of helping everyone you can in their journey to rewarding work: It is very satisfying to pay it forward.

Late Breaking News…
As we were putting the finishing touches on this newsletter, the New York Times last Sunday published an article that couldn’t have been more perfectly aligned with this post. The article in summary says if you want free career or business advice, show appreciation for the time that an industry professional gives you, and be prepared for your meeting.

Ken Hoffman, an operations executive and entrepreneur with a degree in environmental engineering, currently works as Vice President of Hospital Design and Construction for a health-care company based in Louisville, Ky. He’s networked his way to new jobs – and development of new businesses. And he’s served frequently as a mentor to others as they chart a new course.

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